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Why Red Poppies?

May 31, 2010

Before I tell you, a little bit of history first. Did you know Memorial Day was once called Decoration Day?  General John A. Logan issued general order # 11 which reads  “The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country…”

Before then, various unorganized and spontaneous ceremonies were held honoring Civil War soldiers.  New York, in 1873, was the first state to officially recognize it as a holiday and by 1880 it was recognized by all the northern states.

Although the south honored their war dead they did it on different days.  They didn’t recognize Decoration Day because, at the time, they felt it was honoring only Union soldiers who died in the Civil War.  It wasn’t until after World War I that all who died in any war were included.

Memorial Day did not become more common until after World War II, and was not officially declared Memorial Day by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill.  The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May which created a 3 day holiday.

Sadly over the years the traditions and celebrations of Memorial Day have diminished.  I remember all of the celebratory parades and everyone wearing red poppies.

Moina Michael introduced the idea of wearing a red poppy.  She was the first to wear one for this purpose.   She also sold them to family, friends, and co-workers with the money going to military families in need.  The tradition grew and spread to Europe.  In 1922 the VFW begin selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans.  In 1948 the US Post Office honored Ms Michael by issuing a red 3 cent postage stamp of her likeness.  What inspired Moina Michael to start this tradition?  This remarkable World War I poem written by  Lt. Col John McCrae, MD, Canadian Army.

“In Flanders Field”

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.

Based on this poem she replied with this verse:

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.

Memorial Day allows us to remember fallen friends and many more we never knew so that the “blood of heroes never dies’.

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2 Comments
  1. Leslie Stone permalink

    I was about 14 when my English teacher asked us memorize that poem and I have loved it ever since…

    We can never repay our veterans for the sacrifices they and their families have made, so let us honor them with gratitude and humility. Thank you, Dad! Thank you, John!

    • Your welcome, Leslie. The story that goes with the poem is interesting too. The fact that he didn’t think it was worthy and tossed it away only to have it retrieved from the trash.

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