Have you noticed people wearing the paper red poppies that veterans sell each Memorial Day?
This tradition can be traced back to Miss Moina Michael of Athens, Georgia. She had the inspiration on November 9, 1918 to make the red poppy (Papaver rhoeas) the symbol of remembrance for the sacrifices of fallen soldiers during World War I.
Her “Flanders Field Memorial Poppy Idea” was born after reading Colonel John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Field (also known as We Shall Not Sleep) in an issue of Ladies Home Journal*
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Field.
After reading this she pledged “To keep the faith” and to “always wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of keeping the faith of all who died (Michael, p.47).”
At this time, Miss Michaels was working at the Y.M.C.A at Columbia University. A superior gave her a gift of money, which she then spent on twenty-five red poppies. Wearing one herself, she sold the rest to her colleagues. This is said to be the first selling of poppies to raise money for veterans.
In response to McCrae’s poem, she wrote We Shall Keep the Faith (also known as the Victory Emblem), which reads
And now the Torch and the Poppy red
We wear in honor of our dead
From that moment on, Miss Michael pledged to make the “Flanders Field Memorial Poppy Idea” universal. In fact, the red poppy was adopted as the memorial flower by the American Legion at the September 1920 convention in Cleveland.
Miss Michaels became widely known as “The Poppy Lady” and the selling of red poppies continues to raise money to aid veterans and their families. And it is not just the United States who honors its veterans with red poppies, but the British, who observe this tradition as well.
Michael, Moina. The miracle flower: the story of the Flanders Fields memorial poppy. Philadelphia, Dorrance and Company, c1941
Also see Defense.gov’s Little Red Flowers and Remembering Veterans
*This poem was first published anonymously in Punch, Dec 8 1915: 468.