The Story Behind Memorial Day’s Red Poppy

Memorial Day is a time of reflection. It carves a space before the carefree flight of summer for people to consider history and its human toll. In the weeks leading up to it, red poppies can often be seen dotting decorations and worn on arm bands. Sometimes more disarmingly called the Buddy Poppy, the red poppy is worn to commemorate lost soldiers as well as those who have returned wounded from war.

Named for the “buddies” lost, the phrase “Buddy Poppy” is registered with the U.S. Patent Office, and refers exclusively to the artificial red poppies sold by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (the only ‘official’ Buddy Poppies). They are made by disabled soldiers– a way for them to acclimate after returning home and an opportunity to work with their hands if they are suffering from injuries. (The proceeds are donated to organizations supporting veterans and their families.)

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The symbolism of the red poppy began as an American tradition in 1910, and has since made its way to other countries across the world. Among the Commonwealth of Nations, red poppies are worn on Remembrance Day (November 11th), a holiday that, much like America’s Memorial Day, honors the armed forces lost in World War I.

Over the years, the red poppy has retained its weight as a cultural motif in many countries, despite its American origins. In 2014, on the 100-year anniversary of Britain’s involvement during WWI, artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper filled the Tower of London’s moat with 888,246 ceramic poppies between July and November 11th, representing the total number of British military fatalities incurred during WWI. The installation sent a powerful message, evoking the sheer scale and intensity of the Great War.

Red Poppy

The link between poppies and remembering fallen soldiers traces back to the early 19th century, when poppies would grow in the wasted landscape of Napoleon’s battles. Unlike most flowers, poppies germinate readily in disturbed soil; in the aftermath of warfare, Papaver rhoeas (a startlingly red cultivar) would shoot up between the bodies of the dead, creating a gruesomely eerie sight– nature’s own poetic way of honoring bloodshed. During WWI, in the spring and summer, the same uncanny bloom would occur, marking battlefields like a bloody apparition.

The association between the holiday and flower was forever ensconced in the global esprit with the publication of “In Flanders Fields,” a poem written by Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, in 1915. In the wake of a fellow soldier’s funeral, he was inspired by the poppies he saw growing over his grave. The last three lines of the final stanza read:

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Unlike most of the writing to be born of WWI, the poem has an inspired, valiant message that does not condemn the war. McCrae’s buoyant grief is a far cry from the hollow works of the génération perdue– the lost generation that would follow in subsequent years– and the poem quickly rose in popularity, repurposed for army propaganda and revived each year for Memorial and Remembrance Day celebrations.

Moina Michael, an American, read McCrae’s poem in 1918 and was so struck by its heartfelt emotion that she vowed to always wear a red poppy of Flanders Field in order to keep alive the memory of those who had perished. After writing her own poem as a kind of declaration of mission, she undertook a campaign in the following years to see the red poppy adopted as a symbol of not only those soldiers lost, but of those returning with injuries. In the early 1920s, the red poppy caught on, eventually spreading across the world to its current status.

Though the initial connection between poppies and victims of war arose out of coincidence, it seems appropriate that the poppy– at once beautiful and dangerous– should honor and symbolize those lost to battle. The poppy itself (of any color) is no stranger to warfare, having sparked the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century and having since remained the source an illicit international product. At its most benevolent, the poppy’s association with opium connotes peace or sleep; a more sinister correlation sees the poppy as a symbol of death. The relief from pain laudanum provides can likewise be seen as a positive or negative connection, helpful in small doses but perilously close to the edge of addiction.

The red poppy has a more undeniably ominous quality: its soft, wispy petals and the stubborn black center contrast with its visceral, unusually-saturated scarlet color. It is a violent, fierce red that immediately conjurs the image of freshly-spilled blood, particularly when seen en masse at a distance.

Nature often provides a way for us to come to terms with the repercussions of our past actions. It is not just a space in which to find peace— it is also a language through which we can express shared trials and triumphs. The red poppy speaks to the intensity of Memorial Day without erasing its brutality, finding a powerful, serious beauty in an otherwise tragic fact.

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