I was in a department store scouring a rack of Christmas sweaters when a woman next to me made an impromptu confession. "My daughter would be...

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DETROIT — I was in a department store scouring a rack of Christmas sweaters when a woman next to me made an impromptu confession.

“My daughter would be mad if she saw me looking at these,” she blurted, staring longingly at knitwear covered with embroidered Santas and appliqued snowmen. “She says they’re a ‘what not to wear.’ “

Well, she got me thinking about the psychology behind the sparkles, ribbons and off-the-charts kitschiness of those fuzzy icons of Dec. 25.

Christmas sweaters are the fruitcake of fashion. They don’t get respect from the young and style-conscious, who consider them a tradition best left to schoolteachers and grandmothers.

But like fruitcakes, they’ve endured. More than that, they’ve gained the respect of some fashionistas, who bow to the power of the sweaters to spread tidings of comfort and joy.

“I would never wear them, but I think it shows a lot of spirit when someone does and I admire that,” says Julie Halpern, owner of Becca Belle Gifts, a boutique in Detroit. “When I see one, I don’t say, ‘Look at that cheesy look.’ I think it’s wonderful if they have a lot of spirit. It shows a lot of confidence.”

There are restrained options. You can go tastefully traditional at places like Coldwater Creek and Christopher & Banks, or find a festively beaded pullover that will still work through January at Ann Taylor.

Of course, you won’t see famous New York designers covering their cashmeres in green trees and red sleighs. But that doesn’t mean style mavens don’t appreciate a knit with a holly-jolly twist.

Dannielle Romano of DailyCandy.com, a popular Web guide to the hot and hip, describes Christmas sweaters as “the best and boldest way to let your Christmas flag fly.”

She’s an advocate of celebrating novelty sweaters on their own terms. She might chide a starlet for falling prey to the latest tacky trend, but she’d never mock a woman for wearing her love of the season on her sleeve.

“Christmas sweaters are not trying to hurt anyone. They are not an offense to our sensibilities,” says Romano. “For those brave souls, those pioneers, those stalwarts who haul out, year after year, the snowmen, the reindeers, the snowflakes, we should hold them in high esteem.”

In their own uniquely cheerful way, Christmas sweaters are an act of self-expression. They’re a conversation starter in a society that often hides behind e-mails and BlackBerrys. A way to reconnect with childlike wonder, hence the conventional wisdom that they’re OK for teachers.

C’mon! Get your happy on

As corporate cutbacks and global conflicts pile up, they’re also a whimsical break from stark realities.

“They’re kind of cherished. It’s a very personal thing,” says Fred Marx, a retail consultant in Farmington Hills. “They walk into the room and it’s, ‘Wow, the sweater has arrived.’ The person is there, too.”

In store settings, holiday sweaters are usually clustered together on racks, slightly separated from the regular clothing, much like Rudolph was during reindeer games because of his blinding nose.

But don’t feel bad for them, because sales are fine. “They’ve been excellent this year,” says Gail Barken of the Doneger Group, a New York company that analyzes trends and strategies for the fashion industry.

Barken says the shopping season for holiday sweaters began way back in early October. They’re a category with a flexible price range, since they’re found at both bargain spots and upscale mall anchor stores.

“You can buy a great Christmas sweater for $24.99,” she says, or you can shell out $100 or more.

Some sweaters focus on generic winter themes to appeal to a wide range of ages, taste preferences and even religions. Picture silver snowflakes on a white background or a black J. Crew sweater with a small polar bear on one shoulder.

“I wouldn’t mind if someone bought me a really nice sweater with a snowflake on it, and it’s not obnoxious,” says Julie Patterson, the fashion design program chair of the International Academy of Design and Technology in Troy, Mich. “But if you can see me a mile away, no way.”

You can still do the sexy, too

Yet even subtle choices are too cute for some consumers. “The younger generation considers a red sweater a Christmas sweater,” says Dana Keaton, a Detroit fashion designer. Keaton’s own Christmas sweater, which she made herself, is solid red with bell sleeves and a neckline that shows a little cleavage.

“I think they’ve really replaced, in many ways, greeting cards,” says Marx. “The Christmas sweater just says volumes, and you don’t have to say anything.”

And what if you choose not to don your themed apparel? When you see a person in a Christmas sweater, “just give them a warm smile,” says Romano. “If you’re a Scrooge, just cross the street. Don’t bring them down.”