How did it come to this, I thought to myself, while in a central London pub approaching Christmas last year. I seemed to have found myself on the edge of a fight with a group of lads, all being lairy, obnoxious and provoking my friend and I by flicking shot glasses containing the dregs of their syrupy sambuca all over us. They were mean, all heavily coked up to their eyelids, and all – with mind-blowing incongruity – dressed in cute, twee Christmas jumpers. They looked faintly like toddlers or over-stuffed teddy bears. It had the same weird mix of gentility and violence that saw the Droogs in A Clockwork Orange wearing bowler hats. I half expected Beethoven to come on while a man in a “Seasons Beatings” top cheerily smashed my face in.
Even though it was a tense and aggy moment, it at least made me finally understand why I hate Christmas jumpers. It’s not that they’re naff, or trite or even occasionally worn by psychos. It’s that – by virtue of their unique journey through popular culture – they have reached a destination of having no discernable meaning whatsoever. Let’s take a quick stroll through Christmasses past...
The Christmas jumper, commonly known outside the UK as the Ugly Christmas Sweater, was formed from earnest and well-meaning roots. The basic template – of vibrant, woven patterns running around a chunky knit – incorporates elements from ancient Nordic fishing communities (dating as far back as the 1500s) and the woven suavity of European skiing culture. But in a pop culture sense, the jumpers only started to become established in the Fifties, when they became synonymous with wholesome American crooners like Andy Williams and Bing Crosby embodying the soft, seasonal spirit in comfortable and playful apparel. Yes, they were cheesy, but also innocent and well-meaning tributes to the season of our lord’s birthday.
Up until the Eighties and Nineties, the jumpers maintained an air of squareness that was increasingly exploited in film and TV as a device to denote a character’s lame or idiotic nature: Carlton Banks wears one while doing his trademark dance in a Christmas episode of Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Chevy Chase’s ultra square dad in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation wears one, as do the two goonish leads in 1994 film comedy Dumb and Dumber. When jumpers appeared on-screen, they were just well-observed bits of detail. Never had a jumper stolen a scene or hogged the spotlight until 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, when Colin Firth’s eligible-from-behind Mark Darcy character turns around to reveal himself wearing a moose jumper, which instantly made him look a bit of a tosser.
In a flash, the earnestness of the Christmas jumper, as an innocent celebration of a time of goodwill for all, was tossed into the fire. It became an item made of pure lols. That scene somehow kick-started the meme that there was a latent comic value in the jumpers. It was very quickly taken up by two tribes: hipsters and the “I’m mad, me” office joker. Two quite interchangeable tribes, it’s fair to say in hindsight. The era was coincidentally a boom time for retro clothes, which meant washes of old Christmas jumpers emerged quickly, while they also soon appeared on the high street via Topshop and Urban Outfitters. For the first time, words, slogans and – urgh – hilarious puns started appearing on them too, confirming what we all know today. That the Christmas jumper had become deeply ironic.
You don’t need me to tell you we live in an age of endlessly churned-out irony: from the now fashionable status of the once-mocked Crocs to the critical feminist praise for this year’s Barbie movie. But I would argue that the Christmas jumper has an almost supernaturally high irony factor to it, something that only hit me when three unwise men in a pub clad in cute jumpers almost hit me.
Some might explain it by saying that Christmas is an inevitably ironic time of the year: an enforced mass holiday celebrating a deity that a plummeting number of Brits actually believe in. It explains tolerating deliberately bad festive number ones (looking at you here, LadBaby) as much as deliberately “ugly” jumpers. But there’s a less remarked upon second act of the ironic Christmas jumper story, that I loosely pinpoint to 2012 – when veteran American thrash metal band Slayer got a load of press for merchandising an ironic Christmas jumper with their logo on it. It marked for me a point when they started to become totally elfing nasty.
Amazon has its own page for what it calls “Offensive Xmas Jumpers” page, where you can buy seasonal tops that say “Have a F****** Merry F****** Christmas You F***”, or ones showing Santa defecating down a chimney. To be clear, I have no problem with vulgarity – it just has to be actually funny for it to justify itself. Jumpers like this, however, act a bit like irony on steroids: deliberately blasting something that was once cuddly and cosy with a crude and laddy machismo that tries way too hard to be the opposite of its original intent.
In so doing, and adding irony upon irony, they’ve become so offensively distant from the benign age of the twee Fifties crooners and the sartorial good tidings of yore that they’ve effectively lost all context. In the world of extreme irony, they’ve become an outlier – something that has travelled so galactically far away from its original ironic intent that it’s now devoid of any real meaning at all. Imagine trying to explain to a nine-year-old excited about Christmas what’s funny about a jumper that says “Sit on my carrot and I’ll make it snow” and you’ll maybe see what I mean.
In the end, I obviously walked away from the coked-up manchildren in the pub and wiped the pathetic spray of Sambuca off my coat with a mix of self-preservation and dejection. Ironically, I might go back there this year on 7 December, which is officially Christmas Jumper Day.
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