By Jeff Westover
It began as a simple, thoughtful gift.
Back in 1964, Larry Kunkel’s mother thought he’d appreciate a nice new pair of moleskin pants.
Living in Minnesota, the pants were prone to stiffness in the freezing weather of the winter months. So Larry pawned the pants off on his brother-in-law, Roy Collett, as a gift the very next Christmas.
But Roy didn’t care for them either. So he returned the favor and the pants the following Christmas.
And thus the game began.
Each year, as Christmas approached, Larry and Roy contemplated those pants. For the giver, there was delight in knowing that possession of the pants would no longer be theirs for at least a year.
For the receiver, it meant another Christmas morning of knowing exactly what one of the wrapped presents beneath the tree would contain.
One year, as Roy looked forward to his turn as the giver, he took their merry game to a new level by tightly twisting the pants into a “wrapping” of a 3-foot-long, 1-inch-wide galvanized pipe.
Perhaps Roy was merely trying to trick Larry into thinking that he was getting something new, for a change. Or perhaps he was merely hoping to end the gag once and for all by making the pants impossible to give again. We may never know Roy’s intentions. But we do know what happened as a result.
The next Christmas morning, Larry surely giggled at the picture of Roy struggling to untangle a 7-inch square bale of wire, in which resided the infamous and unwanted pants.
With a credit now to both of them in demonstrating ingenuity in the annual exchange of the gift, the stage was now set for their legendary yuletide gift-giving exploits to grow more and more ridiculous with each passing season.
They did not disappoint.
There were, however, some ground rules. They agreed, for example, that the pants could not be damaged in their packaging or delivery. They were duty bound to use only “legal and moral” methods of wrapping. That meant, one could suppose, that “wrapping” the pants inside of a cadaver or booby-trapped to explosives was out of the question.
Nevertheless, their schemes each year became more and more creative.
Roy raised the stakes by placing the pants into a 2-foot square shipping crate filled with stones and strapped shut with steel bands. Larry countered by mounting the pants inside of an insulated window and shipping them off to Roy, complete with the 20-year warrantee.
Soon, their annual gift-giving exploits began to attract attention. The United Press International first told their story in 1983 and updated the world on the next chapter each Christmas for years.
One year, Roy stuffed the pants into a coffee can which he had soldered shut. Then he buried the can into a five-gallon container of reinforced concrete.
Larry responded by entombing the pants into a 225-pound steel ashtray made from 8-inch steel casings. He even personalized the unique gift by putting Roy’s name on the side. Roy must have been so proud. How he retrieved the pants without burning them with a cutting torch remains a secret.
Perhaps the work of cutting free the pants put Roy into an industrious mood. He next secured the pants into a 600-pound safe and then welded the door shut.
Larry took one look at the safe and decided then and there to do Roy one better. He put the still nearly-new pants into the glove box of a 1974 Gremlin. Then he had the car crushed into a 3-foot cube, placing a cheery note of where to find the pants inside the automobile.
This happy tradition seemed to get bigger and bigger each year. Roy once secured a huge used tire that was once housed on a piece of heavy construction equipment. It was eight feet high and two feet wide. He filled it with 6,000 pounds of concrete after placing the pants inside and tagged the outside with the merry sentiment, “Have a Goodyear”.
The next year, UPI gleefully reported that Larry wrapped the pants inside of a 17 foot red rocket ship that weighed 6 tons after being filled with concrete. Complicating matters was the fact that the ship contained 15 concrete filled containers, one of which actually contained the Christmas pants.
Roy was undaunted. He devised a 4-ton Rubik’s Cube, constructed of kiln-baked concrete covered with 2,000 board feet of lumber.
Following the puzzle theme, Larry returned the pants the following year inside of a station wagon filled with 170 steel generators all welded together. Since their rules stipulated that the pants had to be retrieved undamaged, Roy faced several months of disassembly in just trying to find them.
As so it continued until 1989 when the complexity of their wrapping finally damaged the pants and ended the well-documented game. Roy, working to wrap the pants in 10,000 pounds of jagged glass, inadvertently ruined the pants when molten glass being poured over the container holding it all burned them beyond recognition.
Sadly, Roy put the ashes in an urn and sent Larry a final note: “Sorry, old man here lies the pants. An attempt to cast the pants in glass brought about the demise of the pants at last.”
Twenty-six year and untold tons of material later, the legend of the Christmas pants only grows larger. Larry and Roy’s exploits have been duplicated in measure by fun loving folks from all over.
After reading their story, Hank McHenry of Littleton, Colorado wrote to tell the story of an exchange he has maintained with his sister for nearly 50 years. Each year, the gift of a worn baby blanket passes between them. The blanket was originally the cherished possession of Hank’s little sister Joy.
Joy carried the blanket with her nearly everywhere until the age of six. When, to her horror, the blanket just disappeared. It wasn’t until Christmas Eve, 1951 Joy’s wedding night that she saw the blanket again. It came wrapped with a note, begging forgiveness of her big brother, who confessed to long ago taking the blanket and keeping it from her.
To his utter surprise, a year later Hank received a Christmas package from his sister, who by then was living all the way out in Florida and who was great with child. The package had the usual holiday fare and one unusually wrapped gift a box covered with old baseball cards that seemed oddly familiar to Hank. They were his! And he always wondered what had happened to them. Inside was the famous blanket encouraging Hank to accept it to diminish the urge he might feel to swipe the new blanket she was making for her yet unborn son.
Hank never stole the blanket from his nephew, but he did return his sister’s blanket the following Christmas, again asking for forgiveness. Another Christmas came, another package arrived and again Hank unwrapped the blanket with yet another love note from his sister.
Each year has seen this ritual continued. Both Hank and Joy have raised families and lost their spouses. But they continue to ask for forgiveness and express love through the well- traveled gift of a little girl’s beloved blanket.
Whether it is the exchange of an unwanted pair of pants or the symbolic gesture of the bouncing baby blanket, these giving rituals are never really about the gift. Or, rather, the gift is never really what is inside the package. It is what is inside the heart.