Why do we wear poppies on Memorial Day? For that matter, what is Memorial Day even about? I teach 5-year-olds so for them, these questions are nebulous at best. I love this story about Moina Belle Michael and the origin of the Memorial Poppy but unfortunately it’s too mature for my young students (better suited for elementary age or older I think) so I’ll share it here instead. Are you ready to learn about the history of the poppy and the custom of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day?
Why the red poppy?
How did this simple red field poppy become an international symbol of remembrance? What is the significance of the poppy to veterans world-wide?
It all started with a poem and a field of flowers
The battles of World War I completely devastated the land and left behind great areas of death and desolation. Amidst the destruction, a symbol of hope was about to appear.
The churned earth provided just the right conditions for the dormant poppy seeds to sprout and grow the following spring. Soon red poppies could be seen all around the crosses of buried soldiers.
A Canadian doctor, Lt Col John McCrae, was inspired to pen the now famous poem, In Flanders Fields.
In Flanders fields the poppies blowJohn McCrae, In Flanders Fields
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.
The poem was first published on December 8, 1915, in the London magazine Punch. It was very popular and was soon republished throughout the world.
John McCrae – The Canadian Doctor Who Wrote In Flanders Fields
Here’s an interesting bit of history about the man who wrote the famous poem.
A recitation of In Flanders Fields
That excerpt above gives an idea of the poem but I recommend watching this video. Actor James McEachin is a decorated Korean War veteran and brings this poem to life, giving it depth and emotion.
It was thanks to this poem that Moina Michael was inspired to create a campaign to make the red poppy a symbol of remembrance and welfare for veterans, raising money for their care at the same time.
The Poppy Lady
When America entered World War I, Moina Michael volunteered to be a canteen worker for the YMCA and help the soldiers overseas. Unfortunately, she was too old to go overseas herself, so she decided to find a way to help the soldiers stateside before they left for war.
Moina set up a desk in the basement of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in New York where she was available to listen to the soldiers, look at pictures from home, and offer any assistance or comfort they might need – kind of like a mother or a big sister. If you’ve ever had a house with a basement, then you know they can be dark and gloomy, especially in winter. To cheer the place up, Moina used her own money to buy fresh flowers for the room.
On November 9, 1918, things changed for Moina. She was at her desk as always and in a spare minute, she was browsing through the latest edition of Ladies Home Journal and came across McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields (also called We Shall Not Sleep).
Though she had read it before, the final words called out to her that day. She saw the photo of red poppies in a field and knew immediately what she must do.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:John McCrae, In Flanders Fields
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.
She promptly set out on her mission. After visiting several stores, she finally found what she was looking for at Wanamaker’s Department Store. She bought all 24 red silk poppies they had in stock and brought them back to her post at Hamilton Hall. She slipped one poppy into her own lapel and gave the rest away to the soldiers and families.
Moina vowed from that day on to always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance for all those who had died in the war. It would become an emblem for “keeping the faith with all who died.”
Moina not only adopted the poppy as a symbol of remembrance, but she also wrote her own short poem, We Shall Keep the Faith, in response to McCrae’s and from that moment forward worked tirelessly to keep the faith and ensure the soldiers’ sacrifices would always be remembered.
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,Moina Belle Michael, We Shall Keep the Faith
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
Moina Michaels’ Campaign to Make the Poppy an International Symbol of Remembrance and Welfare for War Veterans
Moina Michaels’ campaign began with a letter to her congressman in December 1918, asking that the red poppy be adopted as a symbol of remembrance. By March 1919, Moina had moved back home to Georgia and returned to her job at University of Georgia.
In the summer of 1919, Moina taught a class of disabled servicemen. Working with these veterans first-hand, she was able to see their needs and the struggles they faced. This led her to expand the scope of her remembrance campaign to include services for disabled veterans. Finally, in 1920, the poppy was adopted by several organizations and the idea was gaining traction.
Anna Guérin – The French Poppy Lady
Around the same time that Moina Michael was campaigning for the remembrance poppy in America, Anna Guérin was pursuing the same idea in France and across Europe and eventually around the world. Guérin was using the poppies to raise money for French war widows and orphans.
From 1921-1924, French-made poppies were sold and distributed in the United States.
In 1923 the American Legion took over sales here in America and in 1924, the Veterans of Foreign Wars hired disabled American veterans to make poppies at the “Buddy Poppy” factory in Pittsburgh. Today there are 11 locations where disabled and needy veterans make the Buddy Poppies which raise money to help support veterans and their dependents.
The Remembrance Poppy – An International Symbol
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Moina Michaels and Anna Guérin, the red poppy has become an international symbol honoring the servicemen and women killed in conflict. The remembrance poppy is most common in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. They are also used in the United States but are less common here.
In the United States, we honor the servicemembers who died in battle on Memorial Day in May, and we honor living veterans on Veterans Day in November.
In other countries, such as England, this tradition falls in November on Remembrance Day, sometimes called Armistace Day.
Spend a minute at Flanders Fields today
This video shows a clip of Flanders Field and Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. This site in Ypres, Belgium has held a memorial service every night since July 1928 (except during World War II), honoring soldiers killed here in the war. Wreaths of red poppies are laid while “Last Post” is played on the bugle.
I’m sure it’s amazing in person but am also thankful that I can experience it from afar via video.
Learning More About Poppies
Now that you know a little more about the origins of the remembrance poppy and the Poppy Lady herself, let’s see how the poppy is part of life today.
Learning about Poppies at School
Traditionally in the United States, the poppies are part of Memorial Day but in my class I usually brought the poppy into the Veteran’s Day lessons since I didn’t typically spend as much time on Memorial Day due to age (they’re 5!) and school schedules.
I remember getting poppies at school when I was a child but that doesn’t seem to be a tradition where I live now. So instead, we make a paper poppy necklace craft and talk about what a veteran is and why they are important.
See how poppies are made
This video was filmed at the Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory in Scotland. Follow along with a school tour group as they learn how the poppies are made.
Finding Poppies in England
On a recent trip to London I was struck by how much more prominent the poppy is as a symbol there than it is here in the States. I found several monuments and memorials that included poppies.
Dig a little deeper into the book, The Poppy Lady
I bought the book because I was looking for a story to bring the idea of the remembrance poppy to my young students. It didn’t work for my young class but I still love the book. The illustrations are gorgeous, (One of the reasons I love children’s books is for the illustrations!) but it’s the story itself that really shines.
Yes, it’s about the poppies. But it’s really about Moina.
The Poppy Lady is written by Barbara Walsh, the daughter of a soldier who had actually met Moina during World War I. This is the only book written about Moina Michael other than the book she wrote herself, The Miracle Flower.
I love it when someone finds a story or a memory that would otherwise be forgotten and preserves it for us in a book. The Tortoise and the Soldier is another example of this.
This book covers Moina’s life before, during, and after her poppy campaign and gives us a complete picture of who she was as a person. The message that runs throughout Moina’s life (and through the book as well!) is, “What else can I do? What more can I do?”
Ways to Keep the Faith
Just as Moina Michael vowed to keep the faith with all who died, we can too. Whether it’s by teaching your children through books and stories or by wearing a poppy yourself, we can continue her good work and honor those who died.
If your local veterans group isn’t selling remembrance poppies, you can still make a donation.
Poppies Come to the National Mall
This year a special temporary exhibit has come to the National Mall in Washington, DC for Memorial Day. Sponsored by USAA, the display features a transparent wall that is 133 feet long and 8 1/2 feet tall, filled with 645,000 red poppy flowers. Each flower represents and honors a fallen service member. We have lost 645,000 American service members since World War I.
I did not make it downtown to see the exhibit in person because this would require me to face traffic, crowds, and humidity – three things I make it a point to avoid if at all possible (yes, I’m a wimp!). Luckily for me though, my friend Julie is in town this weekend and she was kind enough to go take these pictures for me to share with you. (Thanks, Julie – you’re the best!!!)
If you’d like to take a virtual tour or dedicate a poppy, visit the USAA website here. The exhibit was only available for this weekend but the website will remain online. The website features educational material as well as ideas of how to honor through action.
Having trouble finding remembrance poppies near you?
Large numbers can seem rather nebulous so exhibits like this can really impact our understanding of what that number really means.
Artists on Etsy have made a variety of beautiful, long-lasting poppies perfect for every Memorial Day or Remembrance Day to come. (affiliate links)
- Door wreath by AnitaRexDesigns
- Felt poppy brooch by Bloomzie Felt Florals
- Lapel pin by Charmed By Silver
- For the Fallen poem print by Find Your Prints
So today on this Memorial Day (and every Veterans Day and Memorial Day to come), don your red poppy, post your flag, offer thanks, and say a prayer for all those men and women who have been lost to war.
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Don’t Stop Here… Read about these other women too!
Extensive and well-written history of the remembrance poppy
Wikipedia article about the remembrance poppy
Wikipedia article about In Flanders Fields poem
Article about the temporary poppy display on the National Mall
Military.com article about the poppy exhibit in DC
American Legion Auxiliary Poppy program
A recitation of In Flanders Fields by actor James McEachin
Article about Ypres, Belgium and the Menin Gate memorial
CBC News: The National – video biography of author, Canadian physician and Lt. Col. John McCrae
Walsh, Barbara Elizabeth, and Layne Johnson. The Poppy Lady: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans. Calkins Creek, 2012.