Remembrance Day tradition: Why we wear poppies

Ottawa’s Joelle Choueiry places a poppy on the National War Memorial on Nov. 11, 2015. Poppies have been a symbol of remembrance and hope since the First World War. Photo from The Canadian Press.

It’s that time of year when the days get shorter, the air feels colder and clothing becomes brighter with the emergence of red poppies.

Most Canadians know artificial red poppies with black centres are worn in honour of Remembrance Day, but how many people are aware of this symbol’s true meaning? It’s a tradition that dates back decades and it continues to this day in Canada, the United Kingdom and other parts of the globe.

Here are some facts about the poppy to remind people why this fall tradition continues to resonate nearly 100 years after the symbol was first worn.

Why we wear a poppy

The wartime poppy bloom dates back to the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, but it really took off as a symbol for veterans in the 20th century.

The poppy has Canadian roots that trace back to the First World War. In 1915, Canadian Lt.-Col. John McCrae of Guelph, Ont., was grieving the death of a soldier he knew, who was killed by a German shell in Ypres, Belgium. After officiating his friend’s funeral service, McCrae wrote a poem called “In Flanders Fields.”

In the 13-line poem, McCrae mentions red poppies that appeared on the war-torn battlefields. These flowers were rare signs of life on terrain tarnished by death and destruction.

The poem was published later that year and the poppy soon became a symbol for remembering those who died in war. More specifically, the British Legion says the poppy is used as a “symbol of remembrance and hope.”

In 1920, a French woman named Madame Guerin noticed the poppy and decided to use it as a cause for good. She made and sold poppies to raise money for French children devastated by the First World War.

In the U.K., the first poppy drive began a year later as a way to raise money for veterans. The event was a huge success and organizers kept it going year after year.


When to wear a poppy

According to the Royal Canadian Legion, poppies should be worn from the last Friday in October until Remembrance Day as a way “to never forget those who sacrificed for our freedom.” In the U.K., poppies can be displayed throughout the entire month of November.

The Canadian Legion recommends wearing the poppy on your left side over your heart, usually on the lapel of a jacket or shirt. While some people may use a pin to hold the poppy in place, this addition should never obstruct the symbol.

For those having issues keeping your poppy securely fastened to your clothing, the Canadian Legion offers clear plastic ends that will keep your pin in place. The piece will also protect you from unwanted pricks from the sharp end of the pin, which can sometimes happen. If you’re looking for homemade solution, you can stick the end of your pin onto a tiny eraser.

Who is behind the poppy?

The Great War Veteran’s Association in Canada (currently known as the Canadian Legion) adopted the poppy as the Flower of Remembrance on July 5, 1921. Decades later in 1948, the Legion officially accepted the responsibility of protecting the poppy’s image.

This means the organization must safeguard the poppy from being used for personal or commercial profit, or misused in any way. Because the symbol is under a Canadian trademark, a special request must be sent to Ottawa in order to use or display the poppy outside of traditional means.

Where does the money go?

Funds raised by the Canadian Legion go toward helping veterans from the Canadian Armed Forces, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and families in need.

The campaign supports everything from grants that help veterans and their families to housing and care facilities. For a full list of services, visit the Canadian Legion’s website.

Respecting the poppy

The poppy means a lot to many people because of what it stands for. That’s why it’s critical to ensure you’re respecting the symbol at all times.

Just ask David Cameron, who received backlash as British prime minister in 2015 when it was revealed that an image of a poppy was Photoshopped onto his lapel. The move was criticized and a spokeswoman at 10 Downing St. told CNN the gesture was “an oversight.”

A year later, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May slammed soccer’s governing body FIFA for not allowing athletes to wear armbands branded with poppies because it might be seen as a political statement. May called FIFA’s decision “utterly outrageous” and it was eventually reversed by the sporting organization.

Millions of soldiers died in wars to protect Canada’s freedom, safety and security. Wearing a poppy is one way to show our respect and gratitude for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Remember to wear a poppy as a way to give back to those who have already given us so much.