Heat oil in a stockpot and over medium heat sauté onion, carrots, celery, ham, pepper flakes, thyme leaves and bay leaves for about 7-8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic and sauté for another minute.
While onion mixture is cooking, chop collard greens so they are a bit finer. To do this, grab a small handful and place on a cutting board. Using a chefs knife, chop them by first making vertical cuts through the pile, and then horizontal cuts through the pile. Continue chopping handfuls of collards in this manner until they are all chopped smaller. (This step may be omitted, but it yields a more refined looking soup.)
Add collards, chicken broth, water and sugar to the pot and return to a boil. Stir collards down into the boiling liquid, cover, reduce heat to low and boil gently for 30 minutes.
Drain peas and place one can of peas in a wide, flat bowl or on a large plate. Mash with a fork, or with a potato masher. Add both mashed and whole peas to the pot, and boil gently, covered, for another 20 minutes.
Stir in vinegar and season with freshly ground pepper if needed. (Be careful of adding additional salt because the ham, broth and peas will have been seasoned with salt already.)
To serve, put a small scoop of cooked rice in the bottom of each soup bowl, and ladle soup over it.
Pass additional hot pepper vinegar or hot pepper sauce at the table, for those who like additional zing.
Note: For variety, you can substitute Cut 'N Clean Kale or Cut 'N Clean Mustard Greens for the collards if you like, or use a bag of Cut 'N Clean Country Greens, which combines collards, mustard and turnip greens in one bag.
Hoppin' John is a traditional New Year's dish, reputed to bring good luck and fortune. The rice is said to bring fertility into the home and in the field. Black-eyed peas represent coins, and collards or other greens represent folding money.