MODESTO -- Once relegated to the back of the closet, the trash can or the giveaway pile, the ugly Christmas sweater is back in vogue in a big way.
Thrift stores can't hang onto holiday sweaters -- the more ostentatious or ridiculous, the better -- as people stage parties and competitions awarding those who track down the ugliest sweater.
"We have a bunch of people coming in looking specifically for them," said Corina Nieto, an employee of the Goodwill store on McHenry Avenue in Modesto. She heard from one customer that people make the rounds of thrift stores, buying them and then selling them online at a premium.
Phil Taylor manages the Hope Chest Thrift Store on McHenry. He also said the stores, which benefit Community Hospice, see homely holiday wear fly off the racks.
"We could have sold 2,000 this year if we had them, so many people want them," Taylor said. "We had three about a month ago and one person bought them all -- she was ahead of the game, because everyone's come in since, looking for them."
And because ugly sweaters are in short supply at thrift stores, people are forced to get creative, Nieto said. "I've had people come in and buy ornaments off our tree -- old-fashioned, flat ornaments -- then buy a red sweater to stitch the ornaments on."
Modesto resident Terrence vanDoorn's wife made him one such piece of so-bad-it's-great clothing.
"She got the sweater from Goodwill and picked up a couple of craft things from the dollar store," said vanDoorn, 29. The sweater was unadorned until she added a cloth Christmas tree, ornaments, tinsel and ribbons.
"She made one ugly sweater," he said. "Then I got some LED lights for the tree."
The gaudy garment was made for an ugly-sweater contest at a Christmas party at a friend's home -- and it won.
VanDoorn is a newbie to the ugly-sweater scene. "I've wanted to do it, and finally got my chance," he said. "I'm not embarrassed to wear anything, so I figured, 'Why not?' "
Some stretch the definition of the word "sweater."
In the Germann family of Ceres, the kids have many memories of being wrapped in loud scarves, sweaters and vests for the season.
"We especially remember one time when we went to the mall to finish our Christmas shopping," said Dominique Germann, a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom program, via email.
"We made a bet with our mother, who was wearing her horrible vest adorned with Santa Claus and snowmen, that if she did not get a compliment in half an hour, she must take it off. To our utter dismay, mom found another woman wearing a similar vest, and after exchanging compliments, the bet was lost."
First party held in Canada
Two men in Vancouver, Canada, claim to have hosted the world's first Ugly Sweater Party in 2002. The pair, Chris Boyd and Jordan Birch, hold an annual holiday bash at the prestigious Commodore Hotel and have trademarked the phrases "ugly Christmas sweater" and "ugly Christmas sweater party" in Canada.
Now, people from New York to Los Angeles hold sweater-themed events, and schools and businesses designate ugly sweater days.
Of course, not everyone thinks fuzzy holiday sweaters in bright red and green are ugly. Undoubtedly, the garments were designed to be perceived as attractive, said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. But taste, and fashion, have evolved.
"Clothes have always been a canvas to express all kinds of things, and I'm sure there are still many people out there who wear these wild sweaters because they think they are pretty," Thompson said.
One of those people might be Brooke Anderson's grandmother.
Brooke, a junior at Ceres High School, said she and a friend needed togs for a Christmas-themed dress-up day at school.
"So we figured, go ugly or go home!" she wrote in an email. "We decided to both raid our grandmas' closets and we found the best or worst sweaters possible. They're extremely fun to wear and it brings out the joy and spirit of Christmas."
Even those who hold up the garments as hideous, Thompson said, may unwittingly be responding to a sense of nostalgia and fond memories of childhood.
"They're wearing them with a deep sense of irony," Thompson said. "It's sort of a tongue-in-cheek, pink flamingo sort of thing. They're making fun.
"At the same time, there is something beautiful about wearing a really obviously themed Christmas sweater. Most people, at some point in their lives, have owned something with snowflakes on it, or had a teacher who came to school decked out in outrageous sweaters because the kids loved them. They have fond memories of that."
Thompson himself has a soft spot for holiday sweaters.
Walking the winter streets in New York, "I'll see hundreds of people in black sweaters and ignore them," he said. "But when I see someone wearing a sweater with a reindeer pulling a sleigh, I'll take a look. That's much more interesting."
Not that he would ever wear such a sweater himself, he said.
Sacramento Bee staff writer Cynthia Hubert contributed to this report.