It was the Canadians. Hard to believe, I know. Because in Canada, there are lots of things you CAN’T do: you can’t pay for fifty-cent items with only pennies, you can’t peel off your band-aids in public, or paint wooden logs, or water your lawn when it’s raining, or use dice to play craps, and if you have a water trough in your front yard, it must be filled by 5 a.m.
However, since 2001, it has been OK for people to wear hideous sweaters without impunity in Canada. Ugly Christmas Sweater Parties originated in Vancouver, according to the authors of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book: The Definitive Guide to Getting Your Ugly On (Nov. 2011):
In 2001, while Americans were trying to figure out what to do with the surplus of food they stockpiled for the Y2K crisis that never was, our neighbors to the north were trying to figure out what to do with the surplus of Ugly Christmas Sweaters that they had amassed since Canada was founded in 1867.
That’s about all the scholarship there is on this aspect of the tradition. After Cool Runnings, Canada is once more accidentally fabulous.
Furthermore, sites like this are “bringing sexy back” and fueling an Ugly Sweater Renaissance. Ugly Christmas Sweater Parties in mainstream America have since come to serve two main purposes: 1) they offer an excuse to make mixed drinks with titles like, “Everybody Gets Blitzened!” and 2) they symbolize “both a celebration and mockery of holiday excess and Christmas aesthetics.”
For RIFco, the ugly sweater party—USP 2011—was mainly an excuse to patronize local thrift stores and de-clutter our houses after moving to Rhode Island.
So preparations ensued:
1. We bought our first ever, real, live Christmas tree. A little balsam that drops a pile of needles every time we breathe. We drove up the street, picked it out at a tree lot, and stuffed it in the trunk. And then we had to buy stuff to put on it. Round one at the store: we bought a box of lights. We got home and discovered, once the lights were strung up on the tree, that we didn’t have enough lights. Round two at the store: Jesse went back to buy another box of lights. He got home and strung the second box of lights on the tree, only to discover, when the tree had been plugged in, that the “new” box of lights did not work. Round three at the store: Jesse exchanged the broken lights for new ones that worked. Round four at various stores: we looked at ornaments. They were all ugly. Round five at the store: we went to Target and found frosted glass ornaments we liked. Then the tree lost more needles.
2. We stressed about White Elephant gifts—with good reason. Last year, we went to a WE party in Kotzebue. It was hosted by the one, the only court judge in town; my mom worked in his office. We had to make a good impression. So, we found the perfect gift, just sitting around the house: two jars of anchovies (expiration date 2008). Apparently, as soon as the exchange started and people unwrapped the first few gifts, we realized we were the only ones who understood the meaning of WE. Everyone else went out and bought candle warmers and champagne (where do you get champagne in Kotzebue?!) gift baskets. The last person to choose a gift had already had her champagne stolen, so she only had one other option, anchovies. The shock on her face at the sight of anchovies was like the kind of shock you get when you stick a paperclip in an electrical socket. How’s that for bad figurative language?
Our USP WE gift exchange would be a test of RIFco’s social finesse. Would everyone choose worthy gifts?
3. We searched for sweaters. Salvation Army is sure to fulfill all your Ugly Sweater needs, even in July. But they have ridiculous hours, so Jesse could never go when they’re open. Three days before USP, we ran around the house, in a minor panic, because we still didn’t have sweaters. But on Friday night, Savers is a cool place to hang out. And they’re open until 9 pm. And their sweaters are just as ugly as those at Salvation Army.
4. We made way too much cinnamon caramel dip and Oreo cheesecake and tested the prepackaged, lighter-fluid soaked fake wood in the fireplace on Sunday, so that everything would be just right on Monday night.
The party was kind of a blur for me, because the tinseled pompoms on my sweater monopolized Roxali’s attention and she followed me around the whole evening and we colored all over the food table and played 10 rounds of Candy Land. But I did hear bits and pieces of the evening’s conversation, which centered on discussions of parental dysfunction in our nation’s schools, Adam’s mad Tai-kwon-do skills, a debate about whether or not Jet Li is real, and the psychologically damaging effects of teaching children that Santa is a mythological creature.
I do remember that everyone looked ugly and bright, and that we gorged on salsa, cookies, chocolate sculptures and Venezuelan cake to the sounds of Jesse’s Christmas Rocks! mix, featuring tunes like these: “Fruitcake” (The Superions), “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” (The Killers), and “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” (Sufjan Stevens). I recall that Roxali didn’t burn her eyebrows off while shooting wrapping paper into the fireplace, and that everyone made it into the Ugly Sweater Hall of Fame. And that there were many coveted WE gifts that were stolen numerous times: the 12-pack of toilet paper (there’s no Costco in RI, nearest one is in Boston), the plastic dragon statue, the clown, and the ceramic butt pot that someone probably made in high school art class. Personally, I think I got the best gift, but I can't even tell you what it is. It's that good. We'll just call it "The Gift That Shall Not Be Named."
Good food, good friends, ugly sweaters. The perfect way to end 2011—besides the fact that the not-so-mythological-Santa came to Rhode Island early to bring us chicken statues, refrigerator magnets, Bendaroos, and a Nikon D5100 (I think because he’s tired of seeing blurry pictures of us). So, next time you see us in 2012, we’ll be in sharp focus.
Happy Ugly Holidays!
|Adam's hand-crafted chocolate sculpture, his final exam from "Chocolates & Confections" class.|
|Roxali drawing people wearing ugly sweaters on our ugly table cloth.|
|Jesse in Savers: old 70s cable-knit grandpa sweater in maroon. Kittens and puppies singing Christmas carols for the Humane Society. The whole outfit was purchased for under $10. This is how econ majors do ugly.|
|Chris and Cassie in Wal-Mart's ugliest turtlenecks. Chris won the "Ugliest Sweater Award" for obvious reasons. And for not so obvious reasons: he purchased his attire from the women's department. His prize was the roadkill possum pictured on his lap.|
|Blurry group shot! For once, the ugly curtains bequeathed to us from our apartment's previous tenants were not frowned upon. Mike on the far right got caught up in the ugliness of it all and momentarily forgot that this was not a GQ cover shoot.|
|I'm not sure what to do with my sweater. I could try to sell it to uglychristmasweaterparty.com. Or, I could keep it and never wash it and let posterity fight over who gets to inherit it.|