‘Tis the season for UGLY Christmas sweaters

Come each December, Steve Smith unleashes his ugly Christmas sweater collection at Flannery’s at Fire Ridge Golf Club in the Town of Grafton. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Everybody enjoys an ugly Christmas sweater party, and then there’s Steve Smith.

He dresses for the occasion every December day he tends bar at Flannery’s at Fire Ridge in the Town of Grafton.

Smith, a 2011 Grafton High School graduate, is up to 26 of the grotesque garments, allowing him to wear a different one each day of the month on his Wednesday to Saturday shifts.

He inadvertently began the tradition with two ugly sweaters five years ago.

“People started buying them for me,” he said. “Then I started getting themed ones.”

Customers and coworkers have come to appreciate the bizarre behind the bar. At the restaurant’s annual Christmas party raffle, whoever wins the ugly alcohol-themed sweaters gives them to Smith.

People are waiting for December,” he said. “They know I’ll be wearing them.”

Smith’s collection runs the gamut, from “Stranger Things” and Darth Vader to a “Jurassic Park” and Santa in a tropical setting.

In 2018, he made his own sweater with a reindeer that has googly eyes.

His December attire follows a loose schedule.

“I tend to start with my favorite ones,” he said, “and the boring sweaters follow before the big finale. “I save my best for last.”

Smith said his novelty takes less mental effort to get dressed for the holidays.

“It’s easier to grab a sweater and throw one on than to plan an outfit,” he said.

When he started his hobby, Smith said, ugly sweaters weren’t as plentiful as they are today.

“You can find them at Kohl’s or Target now,” he said. “If there are cool ones, I’ll stop and get them.”

Smith once snatched up a sweater that had a shark eating presents, only later to discover it was a children’s size.

“I gave it to charity,” he said.

Two new additions this year are matching tributes to his father Dave’s favorite movie, “Christmas Vacation.” One has the line from the movie, “Why is the carpet all wet Todd?” and the other reads “I don’t know Margo.” Dave loves it so much he has a large cutout of Chevy Chase that gets moved around the house.

Some of Smith’s original sweaters don’t make the cut anymore.

“Those are ugly ugly,” Smith said. “One has a built-in white turtleneck. Someone actually thought that was a good sweater  at one point.”

Some of the thicker sweaters make for warm shifts behind the bar. But it’s worth it, he said.

“I just think it’s fun. We do a lot of decorating here, a lot of promotions and parties,” he said.

“It’s an easier sell if someone comes in and looks at the space and the bartender is also decorated.”

Christmas isn’t the only time Smith dresses loudly.

During summer, he wears Hawaiian shirts.

“There’s a lot more than 26 of those,” he said.

On Fridays, he breaks out fish-themed shirts for the weekly fish fry.

He admits his closet is “a little strange.”

Restaurant employees are supposed to wear all black, but Smith started with one wild shirt and nobody said anything.

For Halloween, Smith usually dons a pirate costume, complete with a hook.

Smith started working at Flannery’s in August 2008 as a busboy when he was 15.

“It was my first job and it’s been my longest job,” he said.

He has been a dishwasher, server and bar manager, and is now a bar lead, making sure the bar is clean and stocked.

He was taught his skills on the job by Christopher Chmiel, who now runs the Bridge Inn in Grafton.

“I fell into it,” Smith said of his job. “It wasn’t part of the plan when I got hired as a busser. I didn’t think I’d be here 12 years.”

His fellow employees and regular customers keep Smith at Flannery’s.

“I love the people. Everyone I’ve gotten to know here is part of my family,” he said.

He knows some of the servers from high school, and they have come to his parents’ home for holidays.

Smith has also served as the restaurant’s decorator, going all out with strings of lights and fake snow.

Some of that comes from his upbringing. His parents have Christmas village houses from floor to ceiling. Smith recently went home to add his own ornaments to the tree.

His residence in Milwaukee isn’t as festive. “My apartment has nothing,” he said. “It’s a little one bedroom. I don’t have room to decorate.”

He also doesn’t have any extra outlets for Christmas lights. Three geckos — Mr. and Mrs. and their son, Stubby — and his python Bonnie need electricity for heat.

Smith has also combined his art and bartending skills to teach classes at Farmhouse Paint and Sip in Milwaukee. He has run a few similar classes at Flannery’s.

Those are fun ventures for Smith, but Christmas time and his unfashionable garb stand apart.

“I get excited for December first,” he said.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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