Holidays & Occasions

The History Behind Memorial Day Poppies

Memorial Day Poppies

You may have seen poppies worn at Memorial Day parades or events or seen crepe paper versions for sale, but you might not be aware that the vibrant red flowers represent a rich patriotic tradition–both in the US and in Europe.

The poppy tradition can be traced back to World War I. Entire villages were destroyed in battle, but after a long, dark winter full of atrocities, red poppies began cropping up in battlefields across the continent. After the war, the flower became known as this symbol of life lost and new hope in the face of tragedy. Here’s a bit of background on the tradition of Memorial Day poppies and how it all started with a poem.


The Red Poppy Origins

Historically, the poppy represents new life—during World War I, red poppy seeds scattered in the wind, as the war raged on. The seeds lie dormant in the ground and were germinated by disturbances in the land—such as the brutal fighting during World War I. The practice of wearing poppies was inspired by a 1915 poem, written by a Canadian soldier, John McCrae.

McCrae lost his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium and wrote the poem, In Flanders Fields. The opening lines of the poem refer to the poppies that cropped up at Helmer’s burial, after the dust settled in the battlefield.

Here’s a look at the poem:

In Flanders Fields

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.


Moina Michael—Aka The Poppy Lady

In November 1918, a teacher and humanitarian named, Moina Michael read McCrae’s In Flanders Field and was inspired to respond with a poem of her own, entitled We Shall Keep the Faith.

Here’s Michaels’ poem:

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.

In addition to penning the response poem, Michael launched a campaign in the United States to have the poppy recognized as a symbol for remembrance and personally pledged to wear her own red poppy to honor the soldier who died in Flanders Fields.


More About Michaels’ Work

In 1920, The American Legion, a corporation formed by WWI Veterans in Paris, approved Michaels’ request, and soon after, others began to wear poppies to honor the lives lost in the war.

After World War I, all countries that had fought in WWI, set aside a day of remembrance on November 11– Veterans Day in the US, Remembrance or Armistice Day in the UK. But, since we also have Memorial Day here in the States, the flower has been adopted as a symbol of that holiday as well.

In 1865; the federal government started creating military cemeteries to honor soldiers who fought for the Union Army. Women and survivors would decorate these graves as a way to honor those lives.

After Moina Michael’s push for the poppy, the tradition of decorating soldiers’ graves merged with our existing Memorial Day traditions. Veterans’ groups began adopting the poppy as a way to bring in funds—over the past 90 years, the flowers have been sold as a way of raising funds for veterans’ issues.

In addition to the remembrance poppies, give your favorite veteran a token of your appreciation. Our collection of US-grown Bouqs is a great way to say thanks.

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