Colette Hays had gotten it from her mother: a Christmas sweater too ugly for even a bad sweater party (if such things had existed in 1978). It was in the pattern of an American flag, with alternating stripes of red, white, and green with hollyjolly brown for the canton. Each stripe was filled with knit Santa hats, snowflakes, and mistletoe leaves, while the canton’s stars were represented by little jingle bells that each hung by their own little yarn string.

After wearing it once for the benefit of Mama Sears and enduring a rash for three days afterwards, Colette gave it as a gift to her sister-in-law Josie Sears the following Christmas. Josie couldn’t fail to grasp the significance of this, living as she did in Florida. It was duly rewrapped and presented to Colette for Christmas 1980.

Colette decided that it was time for escalation. Using a vacuum sealer that her husband used for meat products, she packed the infernal sweater like a cut of subprime beef and returned it to Josie. For her part, Josie carefully removed the item from its packaging and twisted it into a PVC pipe that her husband, who ran a plumbing supply business, sealed at both ends.

The contest escalated gradually but steadily, and by 1990 had reached proportions large enough to be mentioned in local newspapers. Always careful never to damage the sweater, the women had delivered it to the other soldered into a coffee can, sealed in cement, welded into a safe, crunched into a car (a 1975 Chevy Vega that had been reduced to a 2-foot square cube), and covered in molten glass.

The last straw came when Josie tried to cover the sweater in a protective asbestos glove and set it into solid steel. The seams failed and the sweater caught on fire. In keeping with the friendly (and at times not-so-friendly) rivalry that had developed, Josie returned the ashes to Colette mixed with potting soil…and a note inviting her to share any produce that grew from it.

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