Karen Worcester is about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Worcester, executive director of Wreaths Across America, which provides holiday wreaths at Christmas to place on graves at Arlington National Cemetery, took that approach when her organization was recently handed a rebuff by the Bar Harbor Town Council.
Two years ago the council approved letting Wreaths Across America put lights on an evergreen tree — and keep it perpetually lit — in Agamont Park and place a plaque nearby.
The inscription on the plaque reads: “The Christmas They Never Had. Wreaths Across America dedicates this perpetually lit tree in honor of those men and women who in service to our Country, were separated from loved ones during the holiday season. Regardless of religious beliefs or creed their sacrifice must always be remembered. July 9, 2011.”
The lighted tree and plaque were particularly intended to honor and remember veterans of World War II. It was dedicated at the urging of Battle of the Bulge, POW and WWII survivor and Wreaths Across America board member Stanley Wojtusik of Philadelphia. “The Christmas They Never Had” is a reference to the holiday that was missed by members of the military in 1944.
Earlier this month, however, the Town Council declined to extend a two-year lease it had granted Wreaths Across America. It gave the organization 30 days to remove the lights.
“I don’t believe a Christmas tree is a universal symbol,” said council chair Ruth Eveland, who joined the majority in a 4-2 vote against renewing the lease.
“I believe that was the case” with some opponents, she said Friday, that they objected because the plaque referred to Christmas and they were not Christians.
“My reason for voting against it was I didn’t feel it belonged on town property,” said Eveland. “We already have a veterans memorial plaque on a different piece of town property. I felt that was adequate.”
The fact that the lighted tree was a memorial to veterans who had to miss a family holiday gathering because of the war was “too complicated a symbolism,” said Eveland, and was “not meaningful” to some, including veterans.
“I even heard it from people who said they were Christians,” she said.
The existing plaque on the village green is a “more universal symbol than a Christmas tree,” said Eveland.
Eveland said she could not quantify the number of complaints the Town Council received from constituents. She heard from as many constituents as on any of the other controversial issues that have come before the Town Council, she added. When asked about how many, she indicated approximately 10.
Town Manager Dana Reed said the lights were “haphazardly strung across the tree. So it just didn’t look like the type of display we wanted to have…”
But Worcester said, “I think it’s a sad day for Bar Harbor.”
Her organization plans to go to Bar Harbor Oct. 13 to remove the lights. They will be transported with an escort to property owned by her husband Morrill Worcester’s company — Worcester Wreath — along U.S. 1 in Columbia Falls. The lights will be used to adorn another tree that will be transplanted next to the highway, visible to passing motorists.
The Oct. 13 event will feature a concert with a finale by Lee Greenwood singing “God Bless the USA” and a fireworks display. The paid admission — veterans are free — will benefit Wreaths Across America.
Worcester Wreath is busy constructing an outdoor amphitheater at the site — it will be used for other concerts and special events in the future — that will be able to hold 16,000 people, although Worcester is only expecting about 3,000 in October.
“It’s a perfect story of celebrating veterans and their families,” said Worcester at her organization’s headquarters and museum in Columbia Falls on Friday.
“It’ll be an emotional day,” she added.
Bar Harbor was chosen as a site for the original memorial tree because of its connection to foreigners, explained Worcester. The tree is visible from cruise ships in the harbor, and some of their passengers are from countries that were overthrown by Germany in World War II and later liberated by the Allies.
“It’s symbolic of a time period,” said Worcester, the Christmas holiday period of 1944.
“We thought it was teaching in a way that wasn’t invasive,” said Worcester. Wreaths Across America has as part of its mission a strong focus on teaching young people about the service and sacrifice that military veterans have made, she noted.
The Allies came to the aid of Jews who were persecuted and massacred by the millions in Nazi death camps in World War II, noted Worcester.
When does “political correctness” intrude on another’s freedom, asked Worcester. “It’s a thin line.”
“The best opportunity to teach diversity is to allow each side to have their point of view,” she said.
The organization has been careful to work with Jewish veterans organizations with respect to its program of placing holiday wreaths on graves in Arlington National Cemetery during the Christmas season, she said. Wreaths are not placed on graves of deceased Jewish servicemen or veterans, but they are made available if families wish to do so.
The tree has plenty of relevance beyond honoring the veterans of World War II, she noted. “We’re losing men and women every month,” she said, referring to the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.
“We’re going to go out there and do it bigger and better,” said Worcester, referring to the new home for the memorial tree.
“It’s kind of like the tree’s coming home,” said Worcester. “We won’t have the lights extinguished.”
This year Wreaths Across America is making plans to provide wreaths at 900 locations — cemeteries and monuments — across the U.S. The organization places wreaths in all 50 states and also abroad — 420,000 last year — and relies on more than 600,000 volunteers.
For more details about the upcoming perpetual tree dedication, concert or Wreaths Across America project, contact 877-385-9504 or email@example.com.