The first time I saw Remembrance Day poppies

When I first moved to Canada, I was surprised by the red poppy pins worn around Remembrance Day. News anchors and politicians pinned them to their lapels, as did Vancouverites of all stripes. Walking down the street, I’d see scattered red dots coming toward me and smile to myself.

Initially I attended Remembrance Day ceremonies, solemn, traditional, and patriotic, but in a low-key Canadian way. I listened to the vaguely familiar words of In Flanders Fields, a poem close to Canada’s heart and memorized by schoolchildren here. I liked the numerical elegance of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Growing up in Hawaii, Memorial Day, in terms of military veterans, didn’t resonate strongly with me. The last Monday in May mostly marked the start of summer. As an adult in Berkeley, California, especially in the late 2000s, patriotism was a complicated concept (and fallen soldiers served as symbols of a misguided administration).

In Vancouver that first year, my eyes were wide open. Remembrance Day in Canada was different from Memorial Day in the USA. I noticed and appreciated those red dots coming toward me. Now, less than five years later, I don’t see them with the same sharpness.

Why? Is it the human condition to become blind to the familiar? Must I grow jaded when novelty disappears? Can I train myself to see with fresh eyes?

Related post:

Image: poppy pin, Cafe Maplethorpe blog

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2 thoughts on “The first time I saw Remembrance Day poppies

  1. I actually wondered about that this year – whether the US wore poppies (guess not). I like seeing the poppies each year, it makes me think that other people are wearing them to remember their family members like my grandpère.

    My grand-père was a WWII veteran, a foot soldier that even in the last years of his life wouldn’t even speak of it other than to burst into tears periodically (emotional lability from age and previous stroke).

    Remembrance day, in this part of the country anyway, is never about patriotism, but about remembering those in our lives who have sacrificed or passed for us. I still think it’s more closely tied to WWI and WWII veterans than others. I’ve always found it an important and humble time to reflect and remember (instead of woohoo-ing our country or soldiers/wars).

    I also had no idea that ‘Flanders Field’ was a Canadian thing as well.

    Thank you for the perspective.

  2. “In Flanders Fields” was written by Canadian army officer, Dr. John McCrae on May 3, 1915, in Flanders/Belgium. The poem was made public in England, printed (authorless) in Punch magazine Dec. 8, 1915. It spread rapidly on the battlefield and our allied home fronts. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Apr. 6 (just before our Easter Sunday Canadian victory at Vimy in France) America was fascinated by it, particularly as their soldiers were involved the fighting, eventually reaching the Flanders area and having their own “fallen” (a permanent cemetery built there). People wrote “answers,” usually first published in a local newspaper; the words were set to music by such as Sousa, and sheet music sold.

    “In Flanders Fields,” titled oddly “They Shall Not Sleep” was used on a Liberty Bonds poster, and used by Bauer & Black surgical supplies company (with errors about Dr. McCrae), in ads, e.g., Ladies Home Journal, posters, and even after the war, troops not yet all back home, in a 1919 calendar. All these featured a dramatic painting of Doughboys rising to heaven, by US artist Philip Lyford.

    All worth a Google. As for Canada, the poppy has been worn here since the early 1920s, certainly in Toronto, for French charity, before the vet groups
    got organized, made their own, the proceeds for vet and dependents as the French orphans/widows need lessened. Mme Guerin also took the idea to Britain and down under, while the US went quite a different direction re date.

    What is noticeable really is when the little “icon” is not worn during our specific period – one sort of wonders who these uninterested people are – first to Governor General, taking off on Nov 11, in Ottawa now placed on our Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Different Commonwealth countries developed their own designs.

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