Christmas is probably the best example of the power of globalized consumer culture, to be exact: how “traditions” are constantly created and re-created, as new customs are constantly imported from Anglo-American popular culture.
This process is constantly ongoing, as demonstrated by the recent arrival of the customary US “War on Christmas” to our shores. Not content with Christmas cheer, a surprising number of culture warriors have found the need to whip themselves up into a fury over imagined leftist attacks upon the Christmas holiday, Christ, church and Icelandic traditions.
But the adoption of awful Anglo-American Christmas traditions is not restricted to overly serious right-wing culture warriors. The intellectual and ironic crowd are responsible for introducing the second worst Christmas tradition to Iceland. The “Christmas sweater.”
An awful new tradition
The concept of the “Ugly Christmas Sweater” only arrived to Iceland a couple of years ago; yet, it has managed to take the country by storm. This year was particularly bad; it seemed be everywhere. Every other workplace organized an “ugly sweater” party, and people bought the hideous things to wear ironically when doing their Christmas shopping. Or just to pose for Instagram.
Everyone wearing these things seems to think he is being extremely clever. Making a sarcastic comment on the holydays and the excessive Christmassyness all around them. Oh it’s so funny! Ha ha!
The main culprit for this hilarity is the charity Save the Children, whose Icelandic affiliate has been running a pretty aggressive campaign to get people to participate in “ugly Christmas sweater challenges.” Last year Jón Gnarr got on board, and this year, the director of the Central Bank got in on the joke by wearing an ugly Christmas sweater during the bank’s December interest rate announcement.
A tradition nobody understands
The “ugly” Christmas Sweater originates as an ironic commentary on the tradition of wearing a special “Christmas Sweater”, which is apparently reasonably common in North America and England. When English-speaking people wear these sweaters ironically, they are making a sarcastic jab at some aunt, grandma or mom who took the holidays too seriously, forcing relatives to wear Christmas themed clothing.
The thing is: nobody, or virtually nobody in Iceland can claim to have any such memories: Icelandic grandmas and great aunts have better, or less garish, tastes. If you received woollen goods from your grandma or aunt, it was more probable these were socks or mittens, or a nice lopapeysa. Perhaps the colour palette was not particularly fashionable, but it was never gaudy, simply because the colour selection Icelandic yarn allows didn’t allow for the kind of bright colours the “ugly” Christmas sweaters are made of.
Sarcasm without a foundation
For sarcasm to really work, its point of reference needs to ring true. For it to work, it needs to be a commentary on something, some cultural or social reality. For ugly Christmas sweaters to be a sarcastic Christmas “tradition” there must be an opposite un-sarcastic tradition of wearing Christmas sweaters. It’s that simple.
So, unlike Americans or Englishmen who put on ugly Christmas sweaters as an ironic commentary on an older tradition they have at least some vague awareness of, nobody in Iceland wearing an ugly Christmas sweater has any such first-hand experiences. The first time most Icelanders ever saw an ugly Christmas sweaters was on Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ diary.
So, all the sarcasm is in fact imported, lock stock and barrel. The only reason any Icelandic hipster dons an ugly Christmas jumper “sarcastically” is because he or she is familiar with some sarcastic foreign hipsters.
There is something utterly ridiculous about this sort of imported sarcasm.
And a joke nobody really seems to get
Icelanders obviously have a really hard time explaining this new “tradition,” tracing it back to Cliff Huxtable and ‘The Cosby Show’ or Clark Griswold and ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’.
But, while Bill Cosby might be guilty of many crimes, introducing the Christmas sweater is not one of them. Cliff Huxtable did wear colourful sweaters, which people might consider “ugly,” but he never wore anything close to a Christmas sweater: The patterns of the Huxtable sweater were usually geometric and frequently drew on traditional African designs (except for that one episode where they donned Icelandic lopapeysa). Their colours more earthy than flashy.
The same can be said for Clark Griswold of Christmas Vacation: while he took Christmas too seriously, he never once wears a Christmas sweater during the film.
And a bad one at that
Icelanders who wear ironic Ugly Christmas sweaters also miss a subtler problem with this attempt at funniness.
As Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy noted in a Guardian article earlier this month, the Ugly Christmas Sweater, in its proper cultural context, is loaded with classism. It is, she argues, a way to make fun of those who wear them in earnest, people of less and more common taste, primarily the lower classes. Uffalussy concludes that wearing the Ugly Christmas sweater sends a ugly message:
“I have the wealth and “taste” to wear this chunky patterned red sweater as a joke, whilst the plebes, poor souls, wait all year to wear them with pride. If you are looking for the true War on Christmas, you need look no further than any piece of apparel with a light-up Rudolph nose worn by a liberal arts major in a major metropolitan area.”
Which is not particularly in the spirit of Christmas, now is it?
Magnús Sveinn teaches economic history at the University of Bifröst.
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