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Cathy Free: Free Lunch: Ugly Christmas sweaters are a good excuse for a party

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 5 2012 12:15 p.m. MST

Miaken Christensen will be borrowing her friend Tan Safdar-France's pony sweater for her annual ugly Christmas sweater party this year.

Miaken Christensen

SALT LAKE CITY — If there is anything tackier than a Christmas sweater festooned with everything from light-up snowmen to “seven swans a-swimming,” then Miaken Christensen is determined to find it.

That’s why you’ll find her every season riffling through the latest frightful castaways at her neighborhood thrift shop, hoping to find another hideous gem to add to the pile growing in the trunk of her red Honda.

Now that ugly sweater Christmas parties have become a national trend (a book has even been written about them), “you have to get out there early to nab the good ones,” says Christensen, 31, who keeps her eyes open year-round for sweaters embroidered with pastel reindeer, red-and-green ruffles and the ever-popular “12 Days of Christmas” theme.

With her sixth annual ugly sweater soiree coming up on Dec. 8, she thought it would be a good time to get together for a Free Lunch of eggs benedict at Salt Lake City’s Eva Cafe and discuss her latest project: an ugly “Sweater Boys” calendar featuring Utah’s finest wearing tasteless woolen and acrylic holiday creations.

This is Christensen’s second year for the calendar, with proceeds benefitting the Andes Educational Fund for impoverished Peruvian school kids. “We have a treasure trove of ugly sweaters in Utah,” she says, “so I figured, ‘Why not capitalize on that and raise money for a good cause?’”

Christensen, a photographer and film production assistant, conned her male friends into posing for the calendar, using sweaters from their own closets (“scary stuff,” she says) or finds from her rapidly-expanding collection.

One of the models, Tan Safdar-France (Mr. November), designed his own sweater for the occasion: a startling peach number with stars and a brown fuzzy pony attached.

“He’s letting me borrow it for the ugly Christmas party,” says Christensen, who realized that nothing in her own sweater stash could come close to the pony pullover’s tackiness. “It’s one awful mess.”

Her appreciation for tacky attire likely comes from her childhood, she says, when her mother insisted on dressing her in Laura Ashley floral prints until she was 13.

“When I discovered The Gap, it was like a revelation,” she says. “Finally. I could wear solids!”

What’s awkward today, she says, is when people venture out in ugly Christmas sweaters that they don’t believe are ugly. You know who you are, people. Christensen is hoping you’ll get yourself in for some serious sweater therapy.

Over the years, she has seen about every appalling combination imaginable at her parties: sweaters with flamingos wearing Santa hats and elves wearing long johns; sweaters dripping with ornaments, lights and kitschy plaid bows, and sweaters covered in leather fringe, sleigh bells and gingerbread men.

She thought she’d found the Holy Grail when she unwrapped a gift from her grandmother one year: a sweater cluttered with pastel Santas, snowmen, poinsettias and trees.

“It bridged the gap — Easter colors with a Christmas theme,” she says. “Perfect for my ugly sweater party.”

Because her annual gala has become so popular, Christensen had to move it a few years ago to a large party room at a friend’s apartment complex. Once the guests have arrived in their gaudy glory, she handpicks the most dreadful sweaters and has the wearers model them for a groaning audience. The person with the most applause wins a Sweater Boys calendar.

“It’s the gift that keeps on giving, month after ugly month,” says Christensen, who is already planning photo shoots for next year’s calendar. “I’m not sure how long this ugly Christmas sweater trend will last,” she says. “But I plan to ride it out as long as I can.”

To buy a calendar or get more information, go to sweaterboys.com.

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