As Christmas 1992 approached, Morrill Worcester had a bit of a problem. Morrill was – and is – the owner of the Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine, and that year his company was heading into the holiday with a surplus of wreaths.
The company’s website paints an inviting picture, explaining that the wreaths they make come from “our family farm, thousands of acres of rolling balsam forest tucked away in a quiet corner of Maine.” The family tends to the trees throughout the year, and then cuts the lush balsam boughs to create a beautiful, full wreath, rich with the fragrance of the northern forest. During the “off season,” they hand-tie thousands of red bows that add the finishing touch to each wreath.
Christmas wreaths have a rather long history – they’re not just a pretty decoration. Centuries ago, in northern Europe, evergreen trees were viewed with a certain admiration and awe because they remained green and vibrant through the harsh winters. Christmas wreaths, which were made from trimmings of the Christmas tree, were woven into a circle. Thus the circular evergreen bough represented eternal life.
From all appearances it’s difficult to imagine that you could find a better quality wreath than the one made by the Worcester Wreath Company. Nevertheless, in 1992, Morrill had too many and wasn’t sure what to do with the extra. Then an idea occurred to him that would end up having far greater consequences than he could ever have dreamed.
The idea traced its roots back to when Morrill was a 12-year-old paperboy for the Bangor Daily News, and he won a trip to Washington D.C. Of all his experiences on that trip, the visit to Arlington National Cemetery left the greatest impression on his young mind. The memory of that place “followed him throughout his life.” It made him realize “that because others had made the ultimate sacrifice, he was allowed to dream, build his business, raise a family and enjoy all the freedoms this country has to offer.”
So, rather than throw away those excess wreaths in 1992, Morrill decided he would somehow transport them to Arlington and lay wreaths at as many graves as he could. Olympia Snow, the senator from Maine at the time, helped clear the red tape. When James Prout, the owner of a local trucking company, heard about it, he offered to provide the transportation. And dozens of volunteers from the local American Legion and VFW posts showed up to decorate each wreath with hand-tied bows.
They ended up placing about 5,000 wreaths in one of the older sections of the cemetery that didn’t get visited much anymore. The experience was so meaningful to Merrill that a family tradition was born. Each year for the next 13 years he and his family would donate thousands of handmade wreaths, then make the 740-mile pilgrimage to Arlington to lay the wreaths at the graves of our nation’s heroes.
Outside of their circle of family and volunteers the tradition went largely unnoticed. But then something rather magical happened. In 2005, someone snapped a picture of scores of white headstones on a snow-covered hillside in Arlington National Cemetery, each headstone adorned with a lush green wreath and a red bow. In the age of the Internet, the photo went viral. And the quiet family tradition was suddenly a national sensation.
“Requests poured in and folks wanted to know how they could get involved, and whether the company’s wreaths could be laid at other state and local cemeteries all over the country. The family even received donations that they had to return because they weren’t set up as a non-profit.”
Unable to handle all the requests, the family – along with veterans and other groups – formed a nonprofit organization called Wreaths Across America in 2007 so the tradition could continue. Since its creation, Wreaths Across America has grown by leaps and bounds. Karen Worcester, Morrill’s wife, is the executive director.
According to the organization’s website: “In 2008, over 300 locations held wreath-laying ceremonies in every state, Puerto Rico and 24 overseas cemeteries. Over 100,000 wreaths were placed on veterans’ graves. Over 60,000 volunteers participated. And that year, December 13, 2008 was unanimously voted by the US Congress as Wreaths Across America Day.”
As the movement grew, the family marveled that hundreds of thousands of people across America and abroad responded to the emotional power of these wreaths and their simple ability to honor military members and their families.
By 2014, the tradition had become truly mammoth. The network of volunteers laid over 700,000 wreaths at 1,000 locations worldwide – including ceremonies at Pearl Harbor, Bunker Hill and Valley Forge. I particularly love that they take time to honor veterans from our earliest wars. They also accomplished a long-held goal of placing 226,525 wreaths at Arlington, one for every grave in the cemetery where it all began.
The charity, which has raised millions of dollars, has evolved well beyond its original purpose. The group’s mission is summed up in its simple three-word motto: “Remember. Honor. Teach.”
The group is “committed to teaching younger generations about the value of their freedoms, and the importance of honoring those who sacrificed so much to protect those freedoms.” It also works to create opportunities to connect “the Greatest Generation” with the “Generation of Hope,” “passing on inspirational stories from World War II veterans to the leaders of the future.”
This year, National Wreaths Across America Day is December 14. If you’d like to get involved or just make a donation, visit their website at wreathsacrossamerica.org
I’ll finish with this story from that website. “In 2014, Wreaths Across America established the Veterans Remembrance Tree Program as another way to remember and honor our veterans. The program allows Gold Star families to visit the land in Columbia Falls, Maine, where the balsam tips are harvested each year to be made into the wreaths that are placed on veterans’ grave. Gold Star families often report they find a sense of peace and tranquility from visiting the land where the balsams are grown. The Remembrance Tree Program gives them a living memorial to their loved one.
“If you drive along the many miles of back roads on the property, you’ll see dog tags of thousands of veterans who have served, glistening in the trees; each set of tags donated by a family seeking to honor and remember a fallen veteran. When the wind is just right, you’ll hear the gentle chimes of those who scarified for our freedom.”
So let’s take a look at what has happened here: an indelible childhood memory, a surplus of wreaths, an elegant idea, a quiet family tradition, and a simple photograph spurred all of this – a worldwide movement, with tens of thousands of volunteers, hundreds of thousands of wreaths placed on graves, and our fallen heroes remembered and honored.
Some people may see nothing more than a series of coincidences, an inexorable cascade of events, one following the other. Say what you will, but I see something much greater – I see the mighty Spirit of Christmas at work here.
Merry Christmas to all.
BY Kevin Diehl