November 10, 2011 12:00 PM

After years attending her mother’s very proper Christmas parties (“She’d bring out our good china, and carolers would meet guests at the door”), last year Melissa Joan Hart, 35, decided to put her own spin on a holiday tradition. The result? An informal gathering of friends in Westport, Conn., where the taste level was dialed way down. “I was like, ‘Let’s have a tacky sweater competition!'” she says. Her pals armed themselves with glue guns and scoured thrift stores. Then they gathered over fruitcake and cheese logs in front of a white tinsel tree to crown a winner—and a tradition was born. “She’s been talking about it ever since!” says her husband, Mark Wilkerson, 34. His verdict on Hart’s Grinch-inspired holiday sweater dress? “He said it’s pretty hideous,” she says. “So that’s a score for me!”

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