So-called ugly Christmas sweaters have been a holiday mainstay, both unintentionally (I see you, Great Aunt Hyacinth), and ironically (I see you too, festive hipsters throwing your theme party in your communal artists’ space).
Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that extends to our casual knitwear as well, let’s call them novelty Christmas sweaters. And let’s look specifically at this “multicultural” Christmas Jumper from the Leicester, U.K.-based company that is straightforwardly called British Christmas Jumpers.
I’m sure you know that what the U.K. calls “jumpers” we call “sweaters,” but did you know that this particular sweater has many across the Atlantic hopping and spitting mad? Neither did I, until it was brought to my attention. And even after it was, I was still a bit taken aback. I generally try not to quantify the outrage of those whose views I may not share, but in this case, I’m crying foul.
This sweater, now available here in the U.S., has been referred to as “a blasphemous monstrosity,” a sign that “Political Correctness Really HAS Gone Mad” and “a real turkey,” which is a scathing insult if ever I’ve heard one! [clutches pearls]
Slightly more forgiving online and Twitter comments have included such declarations as “By trying to represent everything you end up representing nothing at all,” while a whole host of people saw fit to simply post hideously elaborate riffs on basic Islamophobia.
The official statement from the company, printed right next to the sweater on the ordering page, is that “Britain has never been more multicultural, so we thought we’d create a Christmas jumper with a twist — something that brings people from all walks of life together in the spirit of love, joy, and festive cheer. We think everyone should be able to wear a British Christmas Jumper and celebrate the festive season — however they wish, no matter what their colour, creed or culture.”
In sorting through the U.K.’s sweater rage, I didn’t want to stop at the one statement on the British Jumper Company’s online catalog, so I reached out to them and got more details via e-mail. They told me that in setting out to create a design that would “reflect modern culturally diverse populations, they chose the top six religions in the world: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Judaism. Then we chose Taoism for its philosophy and message of harmony, the Peace Symbol as a modern symbol of unity, and the Science Atom to include those who have their belief in Science.”
I learned that British Christmas Jumpers is a family business, founded by an Indian couple who arrived in Britain in 1981 during the race riots. The founders’ two sons are now involved in the business, both of whom were born in the United Kingdom and raised in a Hindu family but went to a Christian school. This is a family that has experienced cross-cultural faith-based interpersonal relations, and lives in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the U.K., infusing one of their products with the diversity that they live.
My first thought in reading about the furor was that we found ourselves at the intersection of secularism and semantics here. Take the word Christmas out of the proceedings, and you’ve got yourself a Multicultural Sweater …oooohh, but wait, there’s a row of Christmas trees occupying prime visual real estate, so it’s clearly a Christmas-based situation. And the name of the company that makes them has “Christmas” right there in the middle, so they’re clearly making sweaters for the Christmas season. Period. I wanted to give the people who are furious the linguistic benefit of the doubt, like it was just the word that was the problem, because the pious superiority, ethnic prejudice, and hateful bias I was reading surely had to have some stronger root cause than the close proximity of the symbols of multiple faiths on a sweater.
Sadly, no. The “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd is pissed, shaking angry fists at the Internet sky and asking their web browsers, "Is nothing sacred anymore?" The Islamophobes are worked up because…I guess because they think like the screenwriters of mid-’80s straight-to-video action movies, and such limited thinking tends to keep the hateful worked up.
And the non-religious are up in arms because political correctness is ruining the world!
Guess what? I’m religious and also against being PC just for PC’s sake, and I still need these folks to have a seat, preferably in something that reclines. I check my religious privilege every time I write about it, because I feel lucky to have been born into a faith that is extremely progressive while honoring certain traditions that have enriched my life. (Episcopalian, or Anglican as it’s sometimes called.) When I was a teenager, my mother’s significant mental illness manifested itself partly as extreme zealotry that was abusive, but I still found solace in the faith in which I was raised and the people at various churches I’ve attended throughout my life.
I’ve had chunks of time when my faith dimmed and I didn’t attend services, I’ve been the disruptive dissenter challenging the clergy, and I’ve also spent time exploring Buddhism. It is not my intention to preach to you, but to emphasize my personal horror at seeing such vile hatred couched as religion as I’ve seen against this sweater — for me, the call is coming from inside the house!
I’m so grateful that I was taught that “[Anglicans] listen carefully to everyone, search for wisdom everywhere, take seriously the secular world and its work, and recognize that contemporary knowledge is not necessarily in conflict with faith and indeed may offer wisdom.” So while it may follow naturally that I would see a Star of David so near a cross and not be concerned that we’re all gonna burn from crossing the streams, I still wish that so many other Christians didn’t perpetuate this narrow-minded foolishness. Such ugliness begs the question of who’s really “ruining” Christmas.
Today, I’m religious enough and also pedantic enough to sincerely think of Christmas as “Christ’s Mass,” and I can also recognize that this sweater is not a threat to that. Not to my beliefs, not to the little baby Jesus, and not to Christmas.
Lots of things do diminish Christmas, of course. I could be one of those people railing away forever about the commercialization of Christmas, the emphasis on material things and partying and all manner of behavior that has nothing to do with a manger. To me, this is not exactly the same issue as the secularization of Christmas. There’s a difference between choosing to sing “Here Comes Santa Claus” and defacing a crèche. There’s a difference between hanging a wreath with no cross and actual blasphemy.
Loads of people celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday, and no, that is not in keeping with the traditional Christian origin tale. But Rudolph and Santa and Frosty aren’t going anywhere and I’m not interested in morphing my religious beliefs into something that seeks to persecute or take joy from others. History is too full of that transgression, and sadly, it endures today. If a non-religious person wants to espouse peace and joy and goodwill more fervently around December 25, and this seasonal sweater company wants to invite them to the holiday party via knitwear, more power to 'em.
Keeping Christ in Christmas can be lovely when exercised by actually putting Christ first, not anger. When I see people attacking others over secular or mixed-faith celebrations, I want to ask “What would Jesus do?,” but for too many people those have just become words on a bracelet and not a genuine inquiry.
And what of the multitudes of people who don’t celebrate Christmas at all, in any way? Year after year they have to endure this festive societal takeover, and perhaps they feel alienated. Or perhaps someone is part of a family of multiple faiths, or is a proud atheist but wants to put up a tree, or has moved to a place where they’re suddenly in a religious or ethnic minority and feeling especially disenfranchised during the holiday season…which brings us back to the sweater.
Sure, it does bring to mind those “Coexist” bumper stickers that were also made with good intentions and rendered a bit goofy by the passage of time and cynicism. But if there’s ever a time to keep our cynicism just a teensy bit at bay, isn’t this it? Why all the holly jolly hatred?
If someone has a legitimate beef with the religious symbols of faiths that does not celebrate Christmas in its original Christian form, sharing space with crosses and Christmas trees, fine. Don’t wear it, don’t buy it, and re-gift it if you should happen to find one under your tree.
But if you can imagine opening up your sweater to people different from you in one way with whom you still share the common bond of humanity, well…what’s more Christmassy than that?