Remembrance Day poppy: five things you should know about it

Dave Smart assembles poppy wreaths at the Royal British Legion Poppy Factory REUTERS/Toby Melville
Are you wearing your poppy yet?

The Royal Canadian Legion's annual poppy campaign kicked off last week but I like to wait until Halloween is over before pinning the distinctive symbol of remembrance to my jacket. Somehow wearing this sombre commemoration of our soldiers' sacrifices during wartime seems to clash with the frivolity of a Halloween costume.

However, the legion says it's okay to begin wearing the poppy as soon as its campaign begins.

I used to assume the poppy's connection with the war dead came from the First World War and Canadian Col. John McCrae's famous poem, In Flanders Fields.

But according to the legion's history of the poppy, the association dates back more than a century before that, to the Napoleonic Wars, when it was noticed how poppies flourished on the graves of soldiers who had died in battle in Flanders, a region of northern France and Belgium.

McCrae, a medical officer serving near Ypres, Belgium, made the same connection in 1915, inspiring his immortal poem written during a break from his ceaseless work with the wounded during the bloody Second Battle of Ypres.

[ Related: Five reasons to wear a Remembrance Day poppy ]

Some other facts about the Remembrance Day poppy:

1. Thank an American for for the poppy's symbolic meaning

Moina Michael, an American teacher working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries' headquarters in New York, read McCrae's poem in November 1918 as the armistice ended the First World War. She took his admonition to keep faith with the dead (which by then included McCrae, who died of pneumonia the previous January) to heart and vowed to always wear a red poppy as a sign of remembrance.

A Frenchwoman, Madame E. Guerin, visiting the United States in 1920 learned of the custom when she met Michael and decided on her return home to sell handmade poppies to raise money for impoverished children in the war-ravaged areas of France.

The following year, the Great War Veterans' Association of Canada (predecessor of the legion), at Guerin's urging, joined its British counterpart and officially adopted the poppy as its Flower of Remembrance.

2. Which countries use the poppy for remembrance?

Besides Great Britain, where about 45 million poppies were distributed in 2010, according to BBC News, the practice is found most often in other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and, after Prince Charles wore one on a visit there, South Africa.

New Zealanders don't wear them on Nov. 11, the day of the Armistice, but on the Friday before Anzac Day, April 25, which commemorates Australia's and New Zealand's war sacrifices.

Wearing a poppy is a little problematic in Ireland, including the still-British north, where it's associated with the excesses of the British Army before independence and during the Troubles of the 1970s, the BBC says.

In the United States, where the practice began, wearing the poppy is not widespread on Nov. 11, Armistice Day. The U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars hold a poppy campaign in advance of Memorial Day, the first Monday in May, which honours American war dead.

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3. How much is raised in the poppy campaign and where does it go?

An accurate figure for the total amount raised in the annual campaign has been hard to come by, but a 2008 post on the Salvation Army's blog put it at about $16.5 million.

The legion distributes about 18 million poppies a year via its members, veterans, military cadets and through direct mailings. Assuming all are given out to Canadians, it amounts to average donations of less than a dollar per available poppy.

The money goes into the legion's Poppy Trust Fund, where it is used to help veterans in need and their families through a variety of programs for things such as medical equipment, home care and long-term care. Veterans of allied countries who now live in Canada are also eligible for assistance.

Money collected by individual legion branches stays in the local community.

The legion's detailed Poppy Manual also allows for special-use expenditures, such as disaster relief, funding of drop-in centres, meals-on-wheels programs or restoration of war memorials. But paying for veterans' funeral expenses, such as wreaths, a graveside bugler or piper or booze and food for poppy campaign workers are all no-nos.

4. How to wear the poppy

Not on your ball cap! And ladies, not on the strap of your purse.

The legion's Poppy Manual stipulates the poppy is always worn on the left breast, as close as possible to the heart.

And don't use anything other than the standard-issue pin to attach the poppy to your clothing, such as combining it with a Canadian flag lapel pin. the legion tells its members the poppy is a sacred symbol of remembrance and should not be defaced in any way.

"While this should be the practice of all legionnaires, it is recognized that the legion cannot control its form of wear by the public. it is undoubtedly better to wear a poppy with a Canadian flag in the center than not to wear a poppy at all," the Poppy Manual says. "The best that we can do is to encourage legionnaires to wear it properly."

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5. Remembrance Day is over. Now what?

"The lapel poppy may be worn throughout the whole of the remembrance period and is removed immediately following the end of Remembrance Day," the manual says.

"Many people place their poppy at the base of the Cenotaph in respect at the end of the Remembrance Day ceremony. This is also fully acceptable."

What you should not do is toss the poppy away. The Salvation Army advises that if you find a discarded poppy, you should place it in a cemetery or at the foot of a war memorial.

And for goodness sake, don't save your poppy to use again next year. That's kind of missing the point, don't you think?