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Here’s Why the Poppy Is a Symbol of Memorial Day
Memorial Day poppies appear every year and raise funds for a great cause. But what is the history behind wearing one of these red flowers?
The red poppy, or Remembrance Poppy, has been a symbol of lives lost to war since World War I (1914–1918), and it plays a big part in the history of Memorial Day. Sales of red poppies benefit veterans associations and fund many charities and veterans causes.
The poppy is worn in many of the countries that were Allied during World War I, including Great Britain, France, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.
In most of those other countries, the poppy is worn on and leading up to Armistice Day (also known as Remembrance Day) on November 11, which is Veterans Day in the United States, or on ANZAC Day (April 25) in New Zealand and Australia, which commemorates the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps troops who served in the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign. But in the United States, the poppy is worn on Memorial Day, not Veterans Day.
The history of the poppy
The poppy as a symbol of war casualties started with a poem. In the spring of 1915, a Canadian artillery unit brigade surgeon named Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae saw bright red poppies blooming on the war-torn fields where so many soldiers had lost their lives, and he was moved to write “In Flanders Fields.”
The poem begins, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row,” and ends, “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.” The poem was published in a London magazine and later syndicated to publications in other Allied countries, where it was seen by two separate (but important) women.
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Two women made the poppy significant
Two women in different countries saw the poem and were inspired in different ways. American University of Georgia professor Moïna Michael wrote a poem in response to McCrae’s, titled “We Shall Keep Faith,” in 1918. She also started wearing a red poppy in honor of the troops and came up with the idea of making and selling red poppies to raise money for veterans.
Meanwhile, in France, Anna Guérin organized large poppy drives, making and selling poppies to raise money for widows, orphans, and veterans, and to fund France’s post-war restoration efforts. She championed her idea for an “Inter-Allied Poppy Day” and started Poppy Days worldwide, during which fundraising poppies were sold in many Allied countries.
What does the poppy mean on Memorial Day?
On Monday, May 31, 2021, many Americans will pin a bright red poppy to their shirts as a sign of respect. In the United States, the poppy is not traditionally worn on Veterans Day, but on the last Monday in May, Memorial Day, to commemorate the lives of those who died fighting for their country. The Friday before Memorial Day (May 28 this year) is National Poppy Day. The poppies are handmade by veterans as part of their therapeutic rehabilitation and distributed across the country by the American Legion Auxiliary in exchange for donations that assist disabled and hospitalized veterans.
RELATED: Memorial Day vs. Veterans Day: What’s the Difference?
Where can I buy Memorial Day poppies?
You can participate in National Poppy Day (Friday May 28) in a variety of ways. Why not organize a Poppy Drive in your community, or simply purchase one to wear yourself? You may also see a member of the American Legion in your town distributing poppies and accepting donations. You can also donate directly to the American Legion (the wartime veterans service organization) or the American Legion Auxiliary (which coordinates volunteer programs for veterans causes). Both of these groups participate in and fundraise for countless worthy community projects and charities across the United States.
After World War I, the poppy flourished in Europe. Scientists attributed the growth to soils in France and Belgium becoming enriched with lime from the rubble left by the war. From the dirt and mud grew a beautiful red poppy. The red poppy came to symbolize the blood shed during battle following the publication of the wartime poem “In Flanders Fields.” The poem was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, M.D. while serving on the front lines.
On September 27, 1920, the poppy became the official flower of The American Legion family to memorialize the soldiers who fought and died during the war. In 1924, the distribution of poppies became a national program of The American Legion.
Led by the American Legion Auxiliary, each year members of The American Legion Family distribute poppies with a request that the person receiving the flower make a donation to support the future of veterans, active-duty military personnel and their families with medical and financial needs.
The American Legion brought National Poppy Day® to the United States by asking Congress to designate the Friday before Memorial Day, as National Poppy Day.
On May 28, wear a red poppy to honor the fallen and support the living who have worn our nation’s uniform.
Poppies: The Symbol of Memorial Day
Flowers have symbolic meaning for a wide range of things. Many can be powerful. I recently came across the origins of the red poppy as a symbol of remembrance on Memorial Day. I recall my parents buying those little crepe paper poppies for us to wear at the Memorial Day parade. The Farmers Almanac recently had a wonderful article about how these red poppies became a symbol for honoring those who lost their lives for our freedom. I would like to share my abridged version of this as a tribute for Memorial Day:
“We Shall Keep the Faith”
by Moina Michael, November 1918
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
Why is The Poppy A Symbol of Memorial Day?
In the war-torn battlefields of Europe, the common red field poppy (Papaver rhoeas) was one of the first plants to reappear. Its seeds scattered in the wind and sat dormant in the ground, only germinating when the ground was disturbed—as it was by the very brutal fighting of World War 1. It was first seen in Flanders Field.
The Poppy Lady
In November 1918, days before the official end of the war, an American professor named Moina Michael wrote her own poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith,” which was inspired by McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” In her poem (also shown below), she mentioned wearing the “poppy red” to honor the dead, and with that, the tradition of adorning one’s clothing with a single red poppy in remembrance of those killed in the Great War was born. Moina herself came to be known—and honored—as “The Poppy Lady.”
The Symbol Spreads Abroad
The wearing of the poppy was traditionally done on Memorial Day in the United States, but the symbolism has evolved to encompass all veterans living and deceased, so poppies may be worn on Veterans Day as well. Not long after the custom began, it was adopted by other Allied nations, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, where it is still popular today. In these countries, the poppy is worn on Remembrance Day (November 11).
Today, poppies are not only a symbol of loss of life, but also of recovery and new life, especially in support of the servicemen who survived the war but suffered from physical and psychological injuries long after it ended. (Farmers Almanac May 2019)
Red Poppy Flower Meaning – What Does The Poppy Represent
Red poppy flowers represent consolation, remembrance and death. Likewise, the poppy is a common symbol that has been used to represent everything from peace to death and even simply sleep. Since ancient times, poppies placed on tombstones represent eternal sleep. Additionally,as a symbol around the world to remember those who died in military service are poppies.
How did the Poppy Flower become a symbol of remembrance for military
Shortly after, red poppy flowers magically grew around the bodies of the fallen soldiers. Poppies then became a symbol of hope and peace with an underlying meaning that the sacrifice of soldier’s lives were for the greater good. Again in 1914, the fields of Northern France broke out in fighting as World War 1 began. Once the world war was over, one of the only plants to regrow were red poppy flowers.
Poppies And Their Cultural Reference
Poppies are significant because of cultural interpretation that these flowers promise resurrection. Red poppies flowers strongly became a symbol of remembrance because of Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae and American professor Moina Michael.
In this poem, McCrae referred to the red poppies that grew over the graves of the fallen soldiers and started the remembrance symbolism of the red poppy flowers. After the conclusion of World War 1 in 1918, Moina Michael wrote a response poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith”, that officially declared that red poppy flowers would be a year-round honor for the soldiers who had died in combat.
Today, the remembrance poppy has become one of the world’s most recognized memorial symbols for fallen soldiers. Even a century after World War 1 ended, people still continue to use the red poppy flower as a symbol for remembrance.
The red poppy flower is much more than a wildflower. From sleep to peace to death, the red poppy flower is a beautiful symbol of remembrance worldwide.