The sweater to make even Kris Kringle cringe

December 15, 2001

A woman in a Christmas sweater has something to tell us about herself, something not so different from the man who shows up on casual Fridays wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and what they're both telling us is this: Watch out, I feel festive.

A woman in a Christmas sweater believes in the healing power of teddy bears and hugs and Hershey Kisses, and she isn't wrong. She's overboard, but not wrong. She's off in the kitchen having a moment, but when she emerges ("Who wants to help make sugar cookies?") she is almost explosive in knitted, sequined cheer. She has transported herself to another dimension, a place of the pleasantly snowy, post-Victorian, sentimentally charged, in fact nonexistent kountry kristmas, for which she has been readying herself all year. Forever, really.

The austere trappings of Martha Stewart Living and Real Simple magazine have no influence upon the woman who owns and wears at least one big, 45-percent-cotton/55 percent-ramie Made-in-China Christmas sweater covered with candy canes and holly and ice skaters and Santas and teddy bears. For her, less is not more. (Meryl Streep's cancer-stricken character in the movie "One True Thing" protests when her emotionally distant, academic husband feels she's overdoing the holidays: "Less is not more," she says. "More is more." It is clear that this is a Christmas sweater woman. She dies.)

Does the sweater have a Rudolph reindeer knitted across it, with a nose that actually lights up? You bet. It will no doubt be worn by the woman who will drag you kicking and screaming into the joyeux realm, and maybe you'd be better off if you just shut up and go along. Her sweater commands it.

The world needs, in a strange way, women in garish Christmas sweaters. It is the final touch of enforced happiness that the season brings. When you see women wearing them, it's like seeing the actual angels who are in charge of graciousness.

These are the women who make the whole office participate in Secret Santa, or leave a tray of divinity by the fax machine. This is the woman who is shoving her sophomores through "Beowulf" and has decided to bring red and green popcorn balls to class today, and skip the vocabulary quiz.

Christmas sweaters are a little fix in the addiction to decorating. The house is done inside and out, the annual family newsletter is bubble-jet laser-printed and inserted into all the cards, which are addressed and stamped, and there's even a wreath on the grille of the Ford Expedition. Now, says the Christmas sweater woman to herself, it's time to decorate me. (Because the dog is hiding.)

The woman in the Christmas sweater has carried holiday spirit farther than it should go, but luckily she lives in the Free World, where there is no such thing as too much Christmas. What we think about other people's Christmas sweaters goes politely unexpressed. Maybe all of December is a huge fashion mistake, an exercise in extreme bad taste, a common horror. With no room for critics, it triumphs over all darkness: I like your sweater.

It's a lie, and an important one.

The world also needs a few men in Christmas sweaters— thick wool sweaters that tend to have somewhat masculine snowflakes on them, and patterns and knitting that suggest catalogues, or Maine, or Labradors leaping across drifts to bark disdainfully at the last ducks while Master cuts down the tree. A Christmas sweater snowflake can be as big as a guy's upper torso. The male Christmas sweater suggests someone cares for him, and he cares back.

Christmas sweaters are so thick and hot that a man can start to feel malarial wearing them, at office parties that are too crowded, his mouth dry and salty from ham slices and fistfuls of Chex Party Mix. (Hey, Tom, are you okay? You look a little wobbly. Let me hold your plate. Here, have a drink.)

In "Bridget Jones's Diary" (the film and book), the protagonist is haunted by the idea that she might like a man she doesn't want to like at all, and he is haunted by the sweaters his mother keeps giving him at Christmas. In their first scene, he is wearing a sweater with a large reindeer on it, and it's really all she needs to know.

With the exception of that rare, perfect cashmere sweater, almost all sweaters are doomed. Sweaters and the holiday season are tragically linked; the sweater suffers in the way the fruitcake does, unable to shed its reputation as a gift gone wrong.

No man can adequately sweater a woman.

No woman can really be safe sweatering a man, unless she manages to buy an exact replica of the sweater he's worn for 17 years.

Nevertheless, stores are crammed with sweaters. Those sweaters that get out of the store before Dec. 25 will be returned after, in a kind of ongoing switchie club. A McDonald's commercial currently taps into the disaster of Christmas sweaters: Five women gather for their annual guy's-sweater swap meet, where each gal passes along last year's sweater to the woman on her immediate right, who rewraps it and gives it to her significant male, who will never wear it.

Most Christmas sweaters are made in China. Some indicate on their labels that they have been hand knitted. There's a narrative to be sussed out here, about exploitative overseas labor and cultural dissonance, the kind of story that would inspire vaguely unsettling short pieces of fiction that would be politely rejected by an editor at the New Yorker:

It's the story of a family that survived Mao. Mother, son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter share a small house and spend their days at a factory, knitting Christmas sweaters to be worn by American women (and some men) at annual office parties. Betwixt old communism and the fresh, cottony-ramie smells of supply and demand, the family readjusts to the world in ways it doesn't quite understand; the matriarch quietly adds up the mistakes of her long-ago girlhood and occasionally cries when no one (especially the daughter-in-law) is looking. Ten hours a day she weaves waving teddy bears, flying candy canes, random holly, giant red and green presents wrapped with bows . . . things for which she has no feelings whatsoever.

Lo, a Christmas sweater is born unto them.

A world away, it's eggnog time! You count five women at the party who are wearing Christmas sweaters. One woman shows up wearing ornaments dangling from her earlobes.

The woman who would wear Christmas ornaments as earrings is also telling us something about herself; something Brenda Lee and rockin' around the Christmas tree, but also something needy and "kinda out there"; something that we're not going to get into right now, because it's Christmas.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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