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Christmas Honors V: Commit again to a unique tradition

Christmas Honors V: Commit again to a unique tradition

Fort Smith's community-wide effort to decorate the National Cemetery needs more than hands this year to continue the tradition

Rarely have so many hands reached eagerly to work as they have for Christmas Honors, the community-led placement of wreaths at every headstone in the Fort Smith National Cemetery.

On Dec. 13, the now-familiar drill of unpacking and preparing the wreaths will take place at the Fort Smith Convention Center. The wreaths will be placed across the cemetery Dec. 14.

As soon as it was conceived in 2009, Christmas Honors was supported by the community with overwhelming participation, said Phil Merry Jr., chairman of the event and one of its originators. In order to establish the project, he made a start-up appeal for funds to purchase the wreaths the first year.

“We received our goal of $65,000 almost immediately – in four weeks!” Merry recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. I get emotional when I think about it,” he said apologetically. “But, of course, I could believe it, this is America.”

Significant corporate donations came in along with many individual contributions, enabling the purchase of thousands of artificial green wreaths and simple red bows. It was the first work day that revealed the unexpected and outstanding way the community embraced the project – people showed up in droves. Many more than enough people came to unpack the wreaths, tie on the bows and load them for transport to the cemetery. Most also returned the next day to place them at each grave.

In the following years, the crowds have only grown, Merry said. A coordinator works to make sure everyone who shows up actually gets a chance to help with fluffing up the greenery, replacing faded or damaged bows, transporting the wreaths and staging them at the ready along cemetery lanes. Even greater crowds go to the cemetery the next day to lay the wreaths and observe the short ceremonies that have become annual traditions.

First is a “Wreaths Across America” placement of large wreaths at the cemetery’s bell tower for each branch of the military, “Taps,” the honor of first placement of individual wreaths by any family members of the deceased who attend and then the mass placement by volunteers, to decorate more than 13,500 headstones.

Both Claude Legris, director of the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau and volunteer logistics chief for Christmas Honors, and Merry said that Northside High School’s JROTC gives one of the most touching tributes of the day. Along with posting the colors, the student Honor Guard performs a precisely executed, beautifully dignified placement of wreaths on the “Unknowns” section of the ceremony.

Legris also described something characteristic that he has noticed.

“You’ll always see an adult bending down, explaining something quietly to a child,” he said. “We can’t hear what they’re saying but you know its laying a base for patriotism and understanding about service.”

In their full-hearted enthusiasm, volunteers place all the wreaths almost too efficiently, Legris said. “With so many people, it just doesn’t last nearly as long as it should. This year, we’re going to go a little more slowly so we have decorated the graves in reverence.”

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Bad weather last year revealed the devotion the community feels toward the veterans buried in the cemetery.

“A few days after we placed them, a bad windstorm blew nearly all the wreaths to the eastern wall of the cemetery and we knew we’d have to do it all again,” Merry said. “The press came out and asked us what we were going to do and we said, ‘We’ll just do the whole thing over.’ We were hopeful the word would spread and people would come. 

Merry went to the cemetery the next morning at 7 a.m. and, he said, “My knees buckled.” In the night, someone had already re-done the work of the 1,763 previous volunteers, putting all the wreaths back into place.

“That’s Christmas Honors,” Merry said. “No one ever took credit for it.”

In order to maintain its high standards, the committee intends to buy new wreaths in 2014 to replace the original ones that have seen duty in sun, wind, rain and snow for about five weeks each year. They have been cleaned and stored in a temperature-controlled warehouse, courtesy of Baldor. But replacing the bows, which will be done this month, will not be enough after this year, Merry explained. The wreaths are fading and have rusting wire frames.

The 2014 goal is to raise $100,000. With a discount given by Walmart, wreaths will be purchased for about $5 each and will last about five years. A small fee is paid to use the Convention Center and for security the night before the wreaths are placed. The committee also provides food for volunteers on workshop day. And, of course, each year the cemetery receives more veterans for burial.

Corporate donations will be generous. But Merry would not be surprised that many of the contributions are for $5 or $10, reflecting the participation of so many individuals. To contribute, mail a check to:

Christmas Honors c/o Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce
612 Garrison Avenue
Fort Smith, AR 72901

Please note “Christmas Honors” on the check.

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