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Posted: Sunday, December 18, 2016 12:00 am

BALTIMORE — Keisha Jones, 32, of Mitchellville, Md., dons a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” Christmas T-shirt decorated with pizza slices, a nod to her favorite childhood cartoon and her shirt of choice for her friend’s annual ugly sweater party.

Jennifer Eisenberg, 23, of Baltimore wears a black sweater with glimmering mistletoe and a reindeer with pursed lips that reads “Kiss Me.” Hanukkah sweaters are hard to find, said Eisenberg, who is Jewish, so she’ll likely save it for the coming holiday parties or a night out at the bars.

Dia Hancock displays her fandom for the band The Roots with cartoon versions of its members on her sweater.

“I think if you can think it, they can make an ugly sweater out of it,” said Hancock, 32, who, inspired by hours of binge-watching Netflix, will sport a sweater with a “Stranger Things” theme.

They’re the tip of the ugly-sweater iceberg. There are ugly sweater parties, celebrity-endorsed lines, a designated “national day” and major-league sports franchises and big-box retailers in on the act. The theme has been adapted to ugly-sweater shirts, hats, leggings, pajamas and attire for pets, often embracing pop culture.

Triad Goodwill held a DIY Ugly Holiday Sweater Contest — with a first place prize of $250.

For the Goodwill contest, the sweater designers were required to purchase at least 75 percent of the items used to create the ugly sweater from one of the Triad Goodwill’s 21 stores in Alamance, Caswell, Guilford, Randolph and Rockingham counties. Entries were adorned with holiday lights, bows, cut-out characters and ornaments.

To find out the winner, chosen after this article printed, visit Triad Goodwill’s Facebook page.

The roots of the ugly-sweater trend date to (nonironic) holiday sweater-wearing in the 1980s, according to “Bringing Ugly Back: The Ugly Christmas Sweater Handbook,” created in part by online retailer UglyChristmas Sweater.com. The trend fell out of favor in the ’90s — the sweaters came to be seen as unwelcome gifts, generally from grandmothers — but has enjoyed a resurgence that embraces the intentionally unattractive, gaudily knitted threads adorned with holiday motifs, colors and sometimes even lights.

It has evolved over the years into a holiday phenomenon, earning its own national day (Dec. 16 this year) and turning the weeks surrounding Christmas and Hanukkah into jovial dress-up opportunities.

UglyChristmasSweater.com was begun in 2011 after finding that used sweaters were in high demand, with some selling online for more than $400.

“We’ve typically seen two types of customers,” said Fred Hajjar, 36, a co-founder and the president of the Michigan-based company. “Some people really just want a sweater that they look at and say, ‘Wow, that’s ugly,’ and there’s others that want a trendy-type sweater.”

UglyChristmasSweater.com sold $5 million worth of attire last year and expects to sell about 90,000 sweaters this year (prices typically range from $39.99 to $69.99).

Popular items this year are sweaters that include a 3-D component or a “Star Wars,” tying into the recently released “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” More risque options are also for sale, including the “stripper pole sweater,” which features an exotic dancer in the North Pole surrounded by elves tipping dollar bills.

This year, the website added a customizing tool, allowing customers to design their own sweaters — a strategy to stay ahead of competition like online rival Tipsy Elves, featured on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” and retail giants like Target, Macy’s and Wal-Mart.

Celebrities have also hopped on the bandwagon. Rapper 2 Chainz introduced his line of ugly sweaters featuring a “Dabbin’ Santa” in 2015, and actress Whoopi Goldberg released a limited-edition collection of holiday sweaters, priced at $139, at Lord & Taylor in November. Beyonce and rapper Nas also sell ugly-sweater-themed apparel.

Each fall, Mount Vernon vintage shop The Zone puts out its stock of ugly sweaters, many “made for moms in the ’90s,” according to sales associate Nikki Le Faye, 35.

“People usually start looking for them a week before Thanksgiving,” to get ready for the holiday festivities, Le Faye said.

The rise of the ugly sweater has also gone beyond intimate gatherings with friends and family. It has infiltrated work functions, themed nightlife parties, charity events, 5K runs and even churches.

At the workplace, the ugly sweater allows colleagues to socialize in a relaxed environment, according to Kelley Chase, 30, and Jessica Laird, 33, who work for the office of advancement engagement at McDaniel College. Last year, the office sweater party saw “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and Donald Trump-themed sweaters, sweater pants and even sweater suits.

“Everyone has a lot of fun with it, and we have a chance to do a fun little holiday-themed something before everyone heads out for the holiday,” Laird said.

For the Baltimore Police Department’s chief financial officer, Caroline Sturgis, 41, combining the ugly sweater and cute holiday pajamas will mark a new tradition, as decided by her family after Thanksgiving dinner this year.

“We started thinking about, ‘Well, you know Christmas is around the corner, so what are we going to do?’ We had the debate among our family,” Sturgis said. “Now everyone is on a mission trying to look for their cutest PJs and ugliest sweater.”

But while many people seem to view the ugly sweater as a fashion rule-breaker that brings people together during the holiday season, others fear that it has become too commercialized.

To Darlene Pisani, a writer and interior designer in Annapolis, the tradition is now reminiscent of Halloween and is “way too much pressure.” She’d rather see discarded ugly sweaters used as gift wrapping or a tree skirt, or perhaps given to a friend one wishes to see less of.

But to UglyChristmasSweater.com’s Hajjar, the thought and effort put into an ugly sweater is what makes it special.

“Maybe add some lights, things hanging off of it, tinsel. There’s tons of things you can do to really make it unique,” he said. “It’s like, if you buy a Halloween costume from Spirit Halloween, you’re not going to win the contest, whereas a person who puts a little more into it — you can really make it ugly.”

© 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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