When I was a youngster and followed the local militia to the cenotaph on a cold November day, I noticed for the first time people wearing red flowers called poppies. In subsequent years, I saw Legion members dispensing poppies on street corners and at store fronts.
In school on the last day ahead of November 11th, our teachers told us stories about World War I and World War II. Always the school ceremonies ended with a recital of Canadian John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”. Written at the Flanders battlefield and published in Punch magazine on December 8, 1915, the poem spoke of poppies “blow[ing] between the crosses”.
Not long after the end of World War I, poppies became a symbol for those who had fallen in warfare. Wearing a red poppy in early November is a visual link and a sign of respect for those who have given their lives in battle. It links back to the first World War, but it is now used for remembrance of anyone who has been at war at any time since.
The poppy has stood as a “symbol of collective reminiscence” in Canada since 1921. Apparently, an American professor named Moina Michael read “In Flanders Fields” in 1918 and immediately vowed always to wear a red poppy as a sign of remembrance of those who died in war. The wearing of a poppy began to spread after that.
In 1920, Madame Guerin in France learned of the custom and decided to use handmade poppies to raise money for children in war-torn areas of her country. Following her example, the Great War Veterans’ Association of Canada (pre Canadian Legion) officially adopted the poppy for remembrance purposes on July 5, 1921.
The plastic poppy with pin was initially an exact copy of the red Flanders corn poppies with their black centres. In the late 20th Century, the poppy centre was switched to green. However, in 2002, the centre was changed back to black to once again match the colours of the Belgium poppies.
A red poppy is usually worn from the last Friday in October to the end of the day on November 11. The poppy is always worn on the left breast closest to the heart or on the left lapel of jackets. It is often pinned onto wreaths at the cenotaph and left there as a token of respect.
There has been a bit of confusion in recent years about what the poppy symbolizes. Some think the red colour is associated with the blood of fallen soldiers, and thus they refer to the poppy as a symbol of warfare. Though the “blood” association is definitely present, that does not mean the poppy is tied in with the idea of war itself. Many people think of the poppy as an emblem to help us reflect on peace and the future of humans in a gentler world.
For those who are not comfortable with the “blood” association of the poppy, a 21st Century development has been the white poppy. Taking the red out of the poppy allows pacifists and others who oppose war to still wear the poppy during the Remembrance Day period. They believe that the white poppy speaks of innocence and purity and peace.
The annual poppy campaign is a major source of funding for the Royal Canadian Legion. It uses the funds to ensure veterans, their dependents, and related memorials are cared for and treated with respect. This organization of some 300,000 people contributes to seniors, cadets, scouts, guides, and members of the RCMP and their families.
Lest we forget, the Legion’s work in the community and the country is immense, and it began with the recognition of the poppy as an emblem of remembrance.