By necessity military families create their own holiday traditions, because they often find themselves provinces, countries, or continents away from friends and extended family over the Christmas season. One posting message later and a military family’s annual hike through a rural Christmas tree farm in Greenwood becomes a drive downtown to a ByWard Market tree stand in urban Ottawa. Military families are adaptable, versatile, and willing to start their own traditions.
That’s what Wreaths Across Canada (WAC) is counting on, Canadian families from coast to coast volunteering to take part in the laying of Christmas wreaths at the graves of fallen military members, making the ceremony a new holiday tradition – recognizing that there are empty places at Christmas dinner tables all over this country, and those fallen soldiers deserve to be honoured during the holiday season.
Warrant Officer Craig McPhee (Retired) CD, SBStJ, founder of Wreaths Across Canada, is a 74 year-old force to be reckoned with. A veteran, a certified Shriner clown, and a great story teller, he’s been all over the world, knows anyone worth knowing, and has a memory for names, dates, and numbers like a steel trap.
On a two-week bus tour that included a visit to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, McPhee saw a picture of row upon row of American military headstones decorated with Christmas wreaths. The scene touched him. “I wanted to do that for our soldiers too,” says McPhee, a self-proclaimed Christmas nut. “It takes me three weeks just to decorate my home for Christmas, so you understand why I wanted wreaths on stones. I got to work.”
McPhee initiated contact with Morrell Worchester, owner of a successful Christmas tree and wreath company in Maine. One year Worchester’s company made 5000 Christmas wreaths too many. What did he do? He donated them to Arlington National Cemetery. People were inspired, and they began to support the cause, and Wreaths Across America was born. McPhee picked Worchester’s brain for four hours, and then came home to begin Wreaths Across Canada. As they parted McPhee signed off with, “Morrell, I’ve got the Northern flank covered.”
Wreaths Across Canada came to be in 2007, yet in the beginning people questioned McPhee. Who do you think you are? What makes you think you can pull off such a huge project? Well, Warrant Officer McPhee (Rt’d) has given an order or two in his time. Combine that with 20 years of very successful post-military sales experience and you’ve got a gentleman who doesn’t subscribe to the word, ‘no’.
He started by approaching people at church. They wanted to join his team. In the spring of 2008 he began using his DND connections and veterans joined the team. Then General Rick Hillier accepted the role of honorary chairperson.
WAC is a registered charity, but it’s run like a military operation.
“We’ve got communications and public relations, logistics, operations, and a translator. We’re in the midst of starting a fundraising committee – generous donations help the cause, but this has to be sustainable. The team knows how to follow directions and get the job done. It’s a smooth operation. Retired military personnel don’t waste time asking a lot of questions,” laughs McPhee.
Each year a WAC ceremony takes place at the National Military Cemetery, within Beechwood Cemetery, Ottawa the first Sunday in December. Starting at 1:30 p.m. the ceremony lasts one hour.
“The whole thing looks something like this: military members, young cadets, buses of veterans, military families, and the general public attend. Foreign ambassadors, attachés and their families lay balsam wreaths first – it can be pretty cold, and there is a lone piper playing, says McPhee. “Volunteers then move throughout the cemetery to informally, but respectfully, lay the remaining Christmas wreaths at the grave stones.”
The ceremony template has been tested, and functions well. McPhee would like to see ceremonies taking place the first Sunday in December in every province and territory. He suggests that buying wreaths in bulk saves on costs, and in his experience, truck drivers generously and willingly take on the cost of transporting the wreaths.
And the organization’s goal of laying Christmas wreaths at the gravestones of Canadian soldiers across the country is catching on. In Newfoundland, the Mount Pleasant Cemetery has a Field of Honour where soldiers are buried. On the same date, at the same time as the Ottawa ceremony, a ceremony will be happening in Newfoundland, where 1000 wreaths will be placed.
Lately McPhee’s phone has been ringing steady, as retired military personnel from across the country connect with him, asking questions about the operation and how it is run. He has great hopes WAC will become a common tradition from coast to coast. Volunteers are always needed to organize ceremonies, and to actually place the wreaths. In Ottawa participation is as simple as coming to the ceremony, then lending a hand to lay the 3000 wreaths – young and old alike are welcome.
“We’re doing this because we don’t want people to forget the fallen soldiers, or their families,” says McPhee. “We’re doing it so parents can take their kids every year – start a meaningful tradition, a meaningful dialogue. Kids will ask why they are there, and why are they leaving balsam wreaths. Parents then have the opportunity and responsibility to talk to their kids about war, and peace; to teach them about our history, as a nation.”
The ceremony is poignant, but not necessarily sad. Christmas is a time of happiness and joy and the wreaths, accented with red bows are beautiful against the stones.
“It’s time to see this meaningful tradition spread across the country. I encourage people to contact me. Let’s give this gift to every fallen hero.”
This Christmas, as the snow dances and drifts against the gravestones of the courageous soldiers resting in Beechwood and Mount Pleasant, Wreaths Across Canada’s gift of simple balsam wreaths will remind every person who passes by it is their duty to accept nothing less than peace on earth.
To start a Wreaths Across Canada tradition in your province visit: http://wreathsacrosscanada.ca
Vicki L. Morrison is a freelancer by day, novelist by night. Vicki contributes to a variety of newspapers, and national magazines. Given a choice between chocolate, and coffee she’d be hard pressed to choose, given that both are jet fuel for writers. As the former Executive Director of 14 Wing Military Family Resource Centre, a patriotic military spouse, and ‘Mama’ to three beautelligent kids Vicki has an in-depth understanding of the strength, and resiliency of military families. Learn more about Vicki, and her work at http://vickilmorrison.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/morrisonminutes