WASHINGTON - On Saturday, December 17, volunteers all across the United States will place donated wreaths on the graves of hundreds of thousands of veterans. The annual tradition known as National Wreaths Across America Day got its start in 1992 as a way honor their service and remember their lives. If the event took place today, however, over 100,000 graves at Arlington National Cemetery would be left without a remembrance wreath.
Wreaths Across America is a donation-based organization that receives no money from the government. They raise more than $3 million each year to reach their goal of honoring hundreds of thousands of U.S. veterans with wreaths, and the number grows as more and more men and women who have served pass away.
A mission to honor heroes
Every December, thousands of wreaths are escorted from Harrington, Maine to the nation's capital, where they are placed at Arlington National Cemetery with the help of many volunteers. The result is a a breathtaking sight. On the same day, hundreds of thousands more wreaths are distributed around the country and beyond.
What has become known as the country's longest veterans parade will begin this year on Saturday, December 10 with a sunrise service at a state park in Maine. For the next seven days, trucks filled with wreaths will caravan down the East Coast to Washington, D.C., stopping at schools, memorials and other locations along the way to spread the Wreaths Across America mission: Remember, honor and teach. The organization's website details what that mission really means:
"Remember our fallen U.S. veterans. Honor those who serve. Teach your children the value of freedom."
The escort to Arlington is symbolic of that mission.
According to the Wreaths Across America website, the pilgrimage began 25 years ago when Maine wreath maker Morrill Worchester discovered he had a surplus of holiday wreaths. Worchester was greatly impacted by a visit to Arlington as a child, and he wanted to do something to pay tribute to our nation's heroes. So, he donated the extra wreaths to be placed on graves in one of the cemetery's older sections. This tribute continued each year until 2005, when a photo showing the donated wreaths on graves covered in snow went viral. Requests began pouring in from all over the country from people wanting to help honor our nation's heroes.
In 2007, the Worchester family and many of those who had helped with the annual wreath donations formed the non-profit organization known as Wreaths Across America. In 2008, over 100,000 wreaths were placed on veterans' graves at over 300 locations, and Congress declared the day of the event Wreaths Across America Day.
In 2014, volunteers laid over 700,000 wreaths at more than 1,000 locations in the United States and beyond. The event is usually held on the second or third Saturday in December. Volunteers who lay a wreath on a grave are encouraged to take a moment to say that veteran's name aloud and thank them for their service. It's about remembering their lives, instead of their deaths.
The mission continues in 2016
As of Wednesday morning, a Wreaths Across America spokeswoman said approximately 130,000 individual wreath sponsorships had been received for Arlington National Cemetery. A total of 245,000 sponsorships are needed to ensure every service member buried at Arlington is honored with a wreath placement--meaning 115,000 more sponsorships are still needed to meet the goal.
But the overall need is even greater than that. Close to 1,000,000 wreaths are expected to be placed on the graves of veterans across the country-- aside from Arlington-- on December 17. Donations for locations nationally are up more than 20 percent from last year, a spokeswoman said.
How you can help
SPONSOR A WREATH : Wreath sponsorships are $15 each, and can be purchased online. Click here for a link.
The deadline for online donations for the 1,200 participating locations around the country has been extended through December 3. The deadline to sponsor a wreath at Arlington is December 14, or until the last truck of wreaths leaves Maine headed for the nation's capital.
Sponsor a wreath around the country
Search for a specific cemetery, or find one that is participating near you. You'll find options to donate, volunteer or see information about ceremonies planned for Dec. 17. On each page, you'll find information about how many wreaths are needed, and how many have already been sponsored.
VOLUNTEER : Help is needed at each cemetery, including Arlington, to place wreaths on National Wreaths Across America Day. If you'd like to volunteer to help, you're encouraged to register online. Though registration isn't required, those who register will receive updates specific to their location in advance of the event.
Wreaths Across America and Arlington National Cemetery will also share event information on their website and social media pages before December 17. Anyone who plans to attend the event is encouraged to read these details before heading to the event.
The National Wreaths Across America Day event is free and open to anyone.