The last time I participated in wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery was in 2019—one of the rainiest days I have experienced. But the event goes on no matter the weather, so when I completed my part I was soaked to the bone, my jeans and every ounce of my clothing adding several unnecessary extra pounds to an already arduous hike back to a parking garage in downtown Arlington, Va. I was exhausted when I reached the haven of my car, but as I drove home sipping a hot chocolate offered by a nearby vendor, I didn’t feel compelled to complain. Every step taken during the downpour as we volunteers collectively marched toward the cemetery was no sacrifice compared to the ultimate sacrifice given by the many we were there to honor.
In 2008 Congress proclaimed a Saturday in December “National Wreaths Across America Day,” and this year that day is December 17. But there is a lot that happens leading up to that day, including the official weeklong “Escort to Arlington,” which this year kicks off December 10.
What has become known as the country’s longest veterans’ parade (see the official route here), will travel down the east coast, stopping at schools, memorials, and other locations along the way to spread the year-long mission to REMEMBER the fallen, HONOR those that serve and their families, and TEACH the next generation the value of freedom. Stops with public events will be held in Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington D.C., before arriving at Arlington National Cemetery on the morning of Saturday, December 17—National Wreaths Across America Day.
The event culmlnates with the transformation of Arlington National Cemetery into one of the most compelling sights of the holiday season in the Washington, D.C. region: more than 250,000 headstones at Arlington National Cemetery individually adorned with fresh balsam wreaths, a solemn living tribute to American veterans, as much an honor to our heroes as any of the permanent monuments that stand tall in our nation’s capital.
The wreaths are laid each December by a growing corps of volunteers—now numbering more than 60,000 at Arlington alone—who join with Wreaths Across America (WAA), a national non-profit organization whose original goal was to expand the annual wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington started in 1992 by a businessman when he donated 5,000 wreaths leftover from his Maine wreath business. Officially founded as a 501(c)(3) organization in 2007, Its mission is to honor every fallen military service member during the holiday season, no matter what is happening in the nation or the world.
One hundred percent of the wreaths laid at Arlington National Cemetery—along with close to another 2 million placed on veterans’ headstones at approximately 3,400 participating cemeteries in the U.S. and abroad—are donated by the public, often sponsored by family and friends of the deceased, but frequently by citizens who desire a simple way to pay tribute to a veteran.
When I interviewed WAA Executive Director Karen Worcester in 2019, she said she never envisioned the magnitude of their future, a new calling, after quietly donating the 5,000 wreaths from their company—a gesture itself that evolved from a memorable visit to the cemetery by her husband Morrill when he was a young boy—but they do know that now it brings Americans together.
“We were just doing this to say thank you,” said Karen, “and then it developed into a mission to teach patriotism, which starts at home, develops into community, then to country.”
The story of what Wreaths Across America has evolved into requires more space than can be told here (you can read all the details at WreathsAcrossAmerica.org), but WAA’s ongoing mission to REMEMBER the men and women who served America; to HONOR our military and their families; and TEACH our children about freedom and those who protect it is shared yearlong, culminating with the annual wreath-laying.
The one stipulation that WAA asks of its volunteers is that when they place the wreath, they say the deceased person's name out loud. “They say you die twice,” Karen said. “The first is when you stop breathing. The second is the last time someone mentions your name.” By saying the names of the deceased, it ensures no veteran is ever forgotten.
Please donate a wreath to this time-honored program. WAA has even established a WreathsAcrossAmerica.org/NRA page for those who wish to donate a wreath as part of the NRA family.