British Columbia

How celebrating the ugly Christmas sweater went from a B.C. house party to a global phenomenon

Twenty years ago this Christmas season, two university students tried on matching penguin sweaters in a Coquitlam, B.C., mall and exchanged glances. Thus was a legend born.

2 Metro Vancouver students had the idea of marking the season with dreadful threads 20 years ago

Chris Boyd, left, and Jordan Birch are the founders of the ugly Christmas sweater movement. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Twenty years ago this Christmas season, two university students tried on matching penguin sweaters in a Coquitlam, B.C., mall and exchanged glances.

Thus was a legend born.

"We put them on and we died laughing," says Jordan Birch, one of the B.C. men universally acknowledged as the founders of the ugly Christmas sweater phenomenon, after they organized a themed party at a friend's house in the Metro Vancouver city.

"Of course, the word 'ugly' and pairing that with Christmas sweater wasn't common verbiage [at the time]. It was just the most jovial, ridiculous, silly party that we could imagine and it just snowballed from there."

'The cheesiest, most festive' party

Birch and his teammate in tackiness, Chris Boyd, plan on celebrating the 20th anniversary of that first ugly Christmas sweater party with a post-pandemic return to something approximating normal.

As normal as anything involving an over-abundance of green, red, tinsel, glitter, pompoms and polar bears can be, that is.

The Ugly Christmas Sweater Dash, a festive five-kilometre run, is back this year after a two-year hiatus for the pandemic. (Now That's Ugly Society)

While there's nothing planned on the scale of their previous celebrations at Vancouver's Commodore Ballroom, after a two-year hiatus Birch and Boyd are bringing back the Ugly Christmas Sweater Dash — a five-kilometre run on Dec. 10 that acts as both fundraiser and ugly sweater celebration — which is already sold out.

They're also selling a children's book — The Ugly Christmas Sweater Rebellion — that tells the story behind a global phenomenon that began in 2002 with "the cheesiest, most festive" house party imaginable.

To some extent, the popularity of the ugly Christmas sweater is as much a lesson in entrepreneurship as it is a feelgood fad. It's also an example of a genuinely viral event that predates an era in which everyone appears to be trying to create viral moments.

The first ugly Christmas sweater party happened at the Coquitlam home of Birch and Boyd's friend, Scott Lindsay, where around 30 people attended.

For the fourth annual party, they moved to the pub at Simon Fraser University in neighbouring Burnaby. And by the fifth year, they moved to the Commodore, Vancouver's legendary dancehall, where they drew sell-out crowds of 1,200 for years after.

"That's where it really became labelled as the Christmas event to go to in Vancouver," Birch says.

"I think what we did really well was to create an experience."

That "experience" included a barbershop quartet at the door, eggnog chugging, costume contests, trophies and choreographed dancing. 

'Stay true to our hearts'

Birch — who studied forest sciences at university — has since become an entrepreneur.

He says he learned lots of what he knows about business through the ugly Christmas sweater experience.

He and Boyd own the Canadian trademark to the words "Ugly Christmas Sweater." A glance at the more than a dozen entries in the U.S. trademark registry speaks to just how valuable those words could be.

A list of trademarks for 'ugly Christmas sweater' listed on the United States Patent and Trademark Office website. (United States Patent and Trademark Office)

In the past two decades, ugly Christmas sweater parties have become a seasonal tradition from San Francisco to Sydney (where they're known as ugly jumpers). Collections from Lululemon, Walmart and Amazon all pop up if you Google the words "ugly Christmas."

And that's to say nothing of U.S. vendors like uglychristmassweater.com, a website boasting Christmas-themed clothes for any and every interest — including, for some reason, Baby Yoda.

The demand for ugly Christmas sweaters has even reached the point where environmental advocates have begged consumers to stop buying mass-manufactured sweaters for fear of filling the oceans with micro-plastics.

"It would have been different circumstances now if Chris and I had monetized this at the very beginning," Birch says.

Instead, he says, they decided early on that they didn't want to spend their lives trying to get rich off the ugly Christmas sweater. So they concentrated on holding events to raise money for charitable causes.

"Let's just stay in our lane, stay true to our hearts," Birch says.

"We've been successful in the fame of what we've created. We're proud of that and we can just make an impact in the way that we are — so we kind of let it go."

Ugly Christmas sweaters have become a global phenomenon, sparking a cottage industry for new merchandise. Environmental activists have warned about the impacts of so much ugliness on the oceans. (CBC)

'We haven't changed'

Birch cites the terminal illness of a friend who died in 2013 — Ashlyn Wittig — as a "turning point" at which he and Boyd decided they wanted to raise money to help "grant wishes."

He says they've raised $250,000 to date.

And what of the actual appeal of an ugly Christmas sweater?

Is it something akin to the beneficial effect the physical act of smiling is supposed to have, regardless of mood — a means to jumpstart festive feelings in the biggest of grinches?

University of B.C. Okanagan associate professor Eric Li likens the sweaters to the kind of "costumes" people start shopping for ahead of Halloween.

He says what started out as laughing at the kind of hideous sweater given by a colour-blind grandparent has turned into a "communal" celebration that transcends all ages — including the ones that like wearing ugly Christmas sweaters just a little bit too much.

Chris Boyd, left, and Jordan Birch, founders of the ugly Christmas sweater phenomenon, read their children's book The Ugly Christmas Sweater Rebellion. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"The key is that you break down your everyday stress and also your roles, and now you put on a costume like an ugly sweater — it's about enjoying those moments without thinking about the stress and all the responsibility in everyday life," he says.

"I think that's very powerful."

News organizations around the world have spoken with Birch and Boyd about the trend they started. No serious pretenders to the throne have ever emerged. Not that it would bother Birch if one did.

"We haven't changed," he says.

"We were just being ourselves. And so, we know it's true in the sense of we know who we are, why we do what we do, why we did what we did and how we got here. So, that's being authentic."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and the justice system extensively.

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