Is that a poppy on your lapel?
If I were to guess, I would bet that most Americans don’t understand the significance of the little red flower as it relates to this memorial holiday. Lets face it, we Americans don’t cotton to following the traditions of foreigners. You know, except as it relates to drinking on St. Patrick’s Day. Oh, and drinking on Cinco de Mayo. Wait, one more, drinking on Mardi Gras (the Italians get credit for the first Carnival traditions in 1268).
However, I like the poppy tradition that other countries have embraced, so I’m going to champion it here. I think we can make some space on our ribbon adorned lapels to show our support for those who sacrificed to protect us in the past and those who sacrifice to protect us in the here and now. With that, I give you the story of the poppy.
During World War I, Lt. Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian physician, penned the poem “In Flanders Field” the day after his dear friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer died following a battle in Belgium.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The poem was published soon after in London, and went on to inspire the wearing of poppies on Remembrance Day. In the UK and Canada, the poppies are worn for two weeks preceding Remembrance Day.
In the U.S., the Veterans of Foreign Wars began distributing “buddy poppies” in 1922, a practice that continues today. Sadly, I can count on one hand the number of Americans I’ve seen wearing the poppy – and that’s in my lifetime. I don’t know why so many Americans are unaware of the poppy tradition and what it signifies, but I think it’s an adornment we should consider promoting, especially now that we’re a nation with so many young military personnel who have served and continue to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fortunately I was given a poppy last year by a friendly foreigner. I will be wearing it on this Veterans Day as a sign of thanks to those soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors who have sacrificed in so many ways, but most of all, to those who gave the last full measure of devotion.
- John Lundberg: ‘In Flanders Fields’ Still Inspires Millions (huffingtonpost.com)
- John Lichfield: Poppies, patriotism and the souring of an honourable tradition (independent.co.uk)
- Remembrance Sunday: a history of the poppy (telegraph.co.uk)
- Poppy-wearing is not a trivial right | Rupert Myers (guardian.co.uk)
- Poppy time: wearing my heart on my lapel (theglobeandmail.com)