About 220 volunteers fill luminarias for three separate illumination events
It might have been an effort to feed the masses.
Hundreds, then thousands of small brown paper bags were filled by busy workers, then loaded into boxes and onto a tractor-trailer.
But this effort was not one to feed the hungry. The paper sacks were filled not with food, but with sand and candles, the light of which would represent and bring honor to the memory of the dead.
About 220 volunteers gathered Saturday morning under a spacious pavilion at the Washington Country Agricultural Education Center filling luminarias for three separate illumination events.
Of the 38,800 packed by the group, 24,000 will light historical hallowed ground on Saturday, Dec. 1, at the 24th annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination. Cedar Lawn Memorial Park will use 4,800 and Rest Haven Cemetery will use 10,000 on separate dates.
Georgene Charles, founder and chairwoman of the battlefield illumination, said volunteers come from schools, Scout troops, churches and other groups, and assemble the luminarias in just around three hours.
Speaking amid the rustle of paper bags, the rumble of supply carts and the lightness of laughter, Charles said the process has been “tweaked and refined” over the years, but “we don’t fool with it too much.”
Charles said Rest Haven owner Charlie Brown brought the idea of large-scale illuminations to Hagerstown 25 years ago. Brown had heard of an event at a cemetery in Georgia and wanted to try it for himself. The appeal, he said, was the idea of light at Christmastime. He wanted the Rest Haven illumination to offer hope and comfort to people dealing with the loss of loved ones at that sentimental time of year, he said.
The Rest Haven event inspired Charles to begin the Antietam lighting, where each of the luminarias represents one of the roughly 23,000 casualties of the Battle of Antietam, which is known as the bloodiest single-day battle in American history.
Brown said he never expected the illuminations to become “this big of a deal.” He is amazed by the numbers and efficiency of the volunteers, he said.
“Everyone moves around like crazy, but all doing what they are supposed to do. And they get the job done. It’s like a beehive of activity,” Brown said.
Carly Mazzone, 17, of Hagerstown, loaded luminarias into boxes after friends at the same table filled the bags with candles and sand scooped from the 22-ton pile next to them. She said the rhythm of the assembly line was “pretty cool” and that she enjoyed being part of the Antietam illumination.
“It’s a really great way to commemorate the sacrifices a lot of people have made for our country,” Mazzone said. “It adds almost a sense of beauty to something so horrific.”
Linda Kasinowski of Germantown, Md., has led Girl Scout troops to participate in the event for years. She said many of the girls return annually.
“Their enthusiasm for the project is unbelievable. Once they come, they are hooked,” Kasinowski said. “They don’t mind being out in the cold all day long.”
Josh Allen, 14, of Mount Airy, Md., has assisted with the project for five years. His Boy Scout troop camps out on the ag center grounds the weekend of bag-filling, then returns to the battlefield for the December lighting.
“It looks so beautiful lit up in winter,” Allen said. “It’s satisfying seeing all the lights knowing that you did something to help it.”