Why Do Some People Wear A Red Poppy on Memorial Day?

by | May 28, 2023

My dad was a WWII veteran. I remember when I was young and riding in the car with him, there would be certain days that men in uniform would be selling a small artificial red poppy in the intersections of the street while the light was red. Dad would always buy one and place it in the visor of his car. He said it was to remember everyone who died during the wars.  

So, where did this tradition begin? In researching it, I found that it began with a poem written during WWI by a Canadian Lieutenant Colonel, John McCrae, who served as a brigade surgeon for an allied artillery unit. He was struck by the sight of the red flowers growing on a ravaged battlefield.  

The Great War, as it was then known, ravaged the landscape of Western Europe. Fields and forests were torn up, wreaking havoc on the land. But, in the warm spring of 1915, bright red flowers began peeking up through the battle-scarred land. John McCrae spotted a cluster of the poppies that spring, shortly after the Second Battle of Ypres, in which a friend died. 

Struck by the sight of bright red blooms on broken ground, McCrae wrote a poem, “In Flanders Field,” which spoke the voices of the fallen soldiers buried under those poppies. The poem was published in a magazine in late 1915, and soon it began to be used at countless memorial ceremonies.  It was one of the most famous works of art to emerge from The Great War. 

Later that year, a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker, Moina Michael, read the poem in “Ladies’ Home Journal” and wrote her own poem in response. “We Shall Keep the Faith” began a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of honor to all who died in the war. She vowed to always wear a red poppy as a sign of faith. After the war ended, she came up with the idea of making and selling red silk poppies to raise money to support returning veterans.  In mid-1920, the Georgian branch of the American Legion adopted the poppy as its symbol. Soon after that, the National American Legion voted to use the poppy as the official U.S national emblem of remembrance.  

The poppy remains a symbol of remembrance to this day. I still buy them whenever I find a veteran’s group that is selling them. They remind me that so many have given their lives for us to have the freedom that we often take for granted. We will always remember them.

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.             

John McCrae - 1872-1918  (visit https://poets.org/poet/john-mccrae for more information)

We Shall Keep the Faith 

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.   

Moina Michael- 1918