Seeing the eye-catching hue of a red poppy pin on coats, jackets and scarves is a pretty regular part of the fall. Poppy-wearing honours Canada’s fallen, but there’s more to the small flower than meets the eye.
So, how did this all begin?
In Canada, the poppy was first adopted as a symbol of remembrance in 1921, and the reason can be traced all the way back to the battlegrounds of World War One. Because of the destruction of battle, poppies disappeared for four whole seasons in huge swathes of soil in France and Belgium. Once the fighting ended, poppies began to bloom again, many growing amongst the graves of the war dead.
Canadian military doctor, Major John McCrae was inspired to pen his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” by the re-emergence of the wildflowers, naming the poem after the site of a key battle, and where many soldiers were buried, the first lines reading, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row.” This also inspired American humanitarian Moina Michael, an American professor and humanitarian, to don poppies in honour of those who perished.
France’s Anne Guerin, inspired both by McCrae’s poem and by Michael’s pledge, started an organization that sold cloth copies of the flower in order to raise money for war-devastated areas in Europe. Guerin traveled to Canada, as well as Britain, to convince the Canadian Great War Veterans Association (a predecessor of the Canadian Legion) to adopt the poppy as a remembrance symbol.
How do we wear them, anyway?
As well as wearing them from the last Friday in October until November 11th, it is not inappropriate to wear a poppy at other times of the year to commemorate fallen veterans and it’s a personal choice to do so. They’re intended to be worn on the left lapel – to be as close to the heart as possible. And it’s best not to replace the pin with a safety pin, though according to The Toronto Star, the Legion is a little more lenient (but still iffy) on replacing the pin with a Canadian flag one. “It is undoubtedly better to wear a poppy with a Canadian flag in the centre than not to wear a poppy at all,” the Legion states in its poppy use guidelines.
Hockey players in the NHL — like Nail Yakupov, then of the Edmonton Oilers — wore painted poppies on the left sides of their helmets.
After Remembrance Day, many Legions recommend taking your poppy to your city’s cenotaph and placing it there in honour of veterans.
Who makes the poppies?
Up until 1996, poppies were constructed by veterans in Toronto and Montreal. Since then, various custom manufacturers have been used. Red-polyethylene is inserted into a machine that heat-forms the plastic into poppy shapes. Each poppy is die cut, producing 18,000 poppies per hour. The machine also creates the scalloped black poppy centres. Interestingly, prison inmates in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta helped make poppies for 2014, by putting together the black and red parts with a bent steel pin.
Back to black
The first poppies worn in remembrance were red, with black in the centre. This centre changed to green to represent French green fields — but soon changed back to the original black to better resemble the real poppies which grew in Flanders Fields.
You don’t have to wear a red one
There’s also the campaign for the white poppy. The Peace Pledge Union, a pacifist organisation in the UK, makes and distributes white poppies to wear in remembrance, symbolising all lives lost, civilian as well as military; a commitment to non-violence; and a challenge to the glamorization of war. Inspired by their campaign, in Canada, organisations such as Canadian Voice of Women for Peace make their own white poppies, and give them away for free each year.
Some, however, have found this in bad taste. Retired Conservative MP and former Veteran Affairs Minister Julian Fantino called the handing out of white poppies, “an offensive attempt to politicize Remembrance Day,” stating the day was “about paying tribute to the valour and courage of those who set the very foundation of the freedoms that makes our country great.” Each to their own.
And not all poppies are red, either
One of the more common wildflowers, varieties of poppy grow in single or double blossom all over the world, and in many colours too, from white in Iceland; yellow in the Pyrenees mountains; to a deep plum in southeastern Europe and western Asia. The purple kind can even grow up to four feet tall.
Where does the money go?
Production of the poppies is today overseen by the Royal Canadian Legion. Every year they raise around $14 million from their poppy campaign, and every penny goes to the veterans and their families who need it most.
They’re actually with us year round
The traditional red poppies associated with remembrance aren’t just for November — if you’re eagle-eyed, you’ll spot them featured on the back of the Canadian $20 bill. Poppies also bloom in many parts of the world from mid-June all the way through to October, so you can catch them in the summer too.
Do they have another meaning?
According to the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome, poppies symbolize sleep, and death, even being used to represent the idea of death as eternal sleep. Alternatively, some have said they represent the blood spilled during the devastation of WWI.
They’re a globally recognized symbol
They’re also an international symbol, being worn at this time of year in 53 Commonwealth countries.