Every time I look at an ugly Hanukkah sweater all I see is Christmas.
If the very design of an ugly Hanukkah sweater is: failing to emulate the Ugly Christmas sweater aesthetic, how can I see anything else?
I bring out my full holiday gear for times like Thanksgiving—with a mustard, forest green, raisin red blouse patterned with wheat, mushrooms, acorns, blackberries, leaves and nuts—or Valentine’s Day, when I wear pink down to my socks. And I don’t wait for any holiday to bring out the jewellery I’ve made or the clothes I have that feature pom-poms. I am a fan of camp and kitsch every day of the week, so it is easy for me to love a festively themed garment. I wouldn’t mind being warmed by a fleece sweater wrapped in tinsel, or sparkling lights, or a dazzling pun, but I have yet to find a nice one for Hanukkah.
I cannot characterize ugly Hanukkah sweaters with a capital U because to be Ugly rather than ugly is an aesthetic designed to ensure there’s a redeeming quality that makes the garment desirable enough to purchase. Most Hanukkah sweaters are blue and will either or simultaneously include a menorah, dreidels, gelt, and a pun. What always deters me is the pun. With phrases like “let’s get lit”, “too lit to quit”, “this is how we Jew it”, “that’s how I roll”, or “gelt digger”, I feel like I’m back in bar/bat-mitzvah season and these sweaters are being made by the same braggadocios 12-year-old bros who would say “too lit to quit” seriously, and would have called girls “gelt diggers” because that’s just highlarious. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of oil burning for eight days instead of one, but I cannot celebrate the miracle of lazy puns giving dated slang and sexist terminology continued presence in Jewish popular culture’s lexicon.
Looking at these garments is like being served those sad cottage pies from school cafeterias that held traces of horse meat, except, I can see the horse meat, I can see the unhealthy garbage I am being offered to consume. The Jewish holiday alternative to the Ugly Christmas sweater is an afterthought that seeks to remind those who identify as Jewish that we are a niche market and therefore undeserving of an attentiveness that delivers quality. Hanukkah’s presence is not reliant on ensuring festive garbs have to match Christmas in order to measure up to it’s consumerist grandness.
The only Hanukkah garment I saw this year that incited a positive reaction, specifically, a giggle, was Judaica Standard Time’s “Trippy Menorah Dog Tee”. It is a simple white t-shirt with a dog menorah across the chest. The drawing could be stolen out of a simple line-drawing cartoon, the lines of the image look as if they were made with a thick black sharpie, or a black brush. The shirt is inclusive because it is not thinking about how to “Jew” a t-shirt, it’s simply a t-shirt showcasing an absurd, humorous, and plausible menorah.
Yet, I don’t need, nor do I own the shirt. In fact, we do not need to wait for literal festive gear to appear in our closets to inform our visual expressions of Hanukkah. We can use what we have.
Come December 10th I’ll be wrapped in Magen David and dreidel tinsel and be adorned from head to toe in not only blue, white, and silver pom-poms, but in ones that remind me of the candles I light and their flickering flames. I may look like a prickly loofah, but I’ll be feeling Hanukkahrrific.
Header image design/illustration by Orly Zebak.
Orly Zebak writes, designs sets and costumes, and makes art in various mediums. Her work seeks to challenge conceptions of female performativity in relation to womanhood, girlhood, and coming of age stories. In her spare time, you can catch Orly gardening—usually in her very comfortable off-brand crocs.
Orly earned her M.A. at the University of Toronto in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies.