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What is the largest wreath-laying program in America and Canada?

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The largest wreath-laying program in America was inadvertently started in 1992 by Morril Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine. Finding himself with a surplus of wreaths nearing the end of the holiday season and remembering his boyhood experience at Arlington National Cemetery, he made arrangements for these wreaths to be placed in one of the older and less visited section of the cemetery. With his desire to remember and honour American fallen heroes and with help from other individuals, veterans groups and organizations, this annual tribute continued to slowly spread across the U.S. In 2007, this annual Christmas wreath ceremony in Arlington formed 'Wreaths Across America' – a non-profit organization that continued to expand their efforts across the country and had a mission to remember, honour, and teach. In recognition of this national initiative, the U.S. Congress unanimously proclaimed the 13th of December of 2008 as 'Wreaths Across America Day' and every year since, Congress designates such a day on the second or third Saturday of December. This year, it will be held on Saturday, 18 December 2021. Wreaths Across America grew from the Worcester's receiving permission to place 5,000 wreaths on graves at Arlington National cemetery in 1992 to two million volunteers and more than 1.5 million wreaths laid over a weekend at over 2,500 locations, including national cemeteries and veterans memorials, in every State, at sea and abroad. According to Karen Worcester, volunteer Executive Director of Wreaths Across America, "When we lay wreaths on veterans' graves, we say their names. We encourage every volunteer who places a wreath on a veteran's grave to say that veteran's name aloud and take a moment to thank them for their service to our country. It's a small act that goes a long way toward keeping the memory of our veterans alive. We are not here to "decorate graves." We're here to remember not their deaths, but their lives." Wreaths Across America also sponsor two HART (Honoring Allies and Remembering Together) ceremonies organized annually to recognize the service and sacrifice of American and Canadian veterans which are held on the Ferry Point Bridge between Calais (Maine) and St. Stephen (New Brunswick); the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit (Michigan) and Windsor (Ontario); and the Alaskan/Canadian border. Shown in the upper portion of the composite photograph are memorial wreaths placed in December 2010 in section A of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Island of Oahu, State of Hawaii.

After having seen photos of Arlington Christmas wreaths posted on the internet, there were two Canadians – unknown to each other and living far-apart – that had decided to replicate the American program in Canada. In 2007, Craig A. McPhee – a retired Warrant Officer of the Royal Canadian Air Force – established his own 'Wreaths Across Canada' organization that is widely supported by veterans' organizations and the Government of Canada. Their vision was to hold an annual commemoration ceremony at every military cemetery across Canada on the first Sunday of December. On the national scene, there are over 225,000 veterans buried across Canada. D. Wayne Evans, the son of a gunner who served during the Second World War, began a similar program for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador and was first to lay some 800 wreaths on veterans' graves on 12 December 2009. Two years later, this sign of remembrance became a new Canadian tradition when on 4 December 2011, Chief of the Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk officially launched in Ottawa, Ontario, the efforts of Wreaths Across Canada and said: "today is a day to offer respect, dignity, and appreciation to all those brave men and women who have served our great country; it's a sombre day for all of us who have come to remember and honour their service. They gave their lives for the freedoms that we enjoy today." Shortly after, the crowd of 1,500 including youth, veterans, families and friends were invited to place a balsam wreath on the graves of over 2,800 veterans at the National Military Cemetery – where they remained for a period of two weeks. Although the main wreath-laying ceremony is held at the National Military Cemetery, located within Beechwood Cemetery (Ottawa), other ceremonies have also been held at several sites including the Brookside Cemetery Field of Honour in Winnipeg (Manitoba) since 2014, and the Notre Dame Cemetery in Ottawa since 2015. Wreaths Across Canada typically hold their annual National Services of Remembrance on the first Sunday of December, this year held on Sunday, 5 December 2021. Shown in the lower portion of the composite photograph are memorial wreaths placed in December 2016 at the National Military Cemetery, Ottawa.

On this day, Sunday, 5 December 2021, we commemorate the 11th anniversary of Wreaths Across Canada and on Saturday, 18 December 2021, we commemorate the 30th anniversary of Wreaths Across America. This is a time to remember the fallen heroes of the United States and Canada and remind us about the sacrifices made by veterans and their families to preserve freedoms we have today.

André M. Levesque

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