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If you're a fan of the royal family, you've probably seen its members wear red paper flowers from time to time. But that floral pin is more than just a fashion statement—it's steeped in significance.
Once a year in November, British people (royals included) honor fallen troops by wearing a crimson poppy. A century-old tradition, the flower has now come to symbolize hope and gratitude. But how did it get its meaning?
As the story goes, during World War I, after a particularly bloody battle in the fields of Flanders in Belgium, thousands of bright red flowers appeared. Poet John McCrae, a lieutenant colonel in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, who had just lost a friend to the war, was so moved by this spontaneous bloom that he wrote a poem about the flowers' resilience, titled “In Flanders Fields”:
In Flanders' fields the poppies blow
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.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders' fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
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.
The 1915 poem was instantly popular, inspiring the Royal British Legion—a U.K. charity, which supports veterans and their families to this day—to sell millions of handmade poppies. Thus began the "poppy emblem" and the first Poppy Appeal: a fundraising event to raise money for war vets, held each November in honor of Remembrance Day.
Similar to Memorial Day in the States, Remembrance Day, or "Poppy Day," falls on November 11, and honors the lives and memories of fallen troops.
While the history of the poppy is clear, there's an ongoing debate about how and when one should wear it. The flower is generally affixed to the left shoulder, to symbolize the act of keeping those who have passed close to one’s heart; the left shoulder is also where military medals are worn. That said, some insist that the poppy's placement is dependent on gender, and women should wear it on their right side. But the Queen always wore hers on her left shoulder, so we'll just follow her lead.
The etiquette of when to wear the poppy is also unclear, and somewhat controversial. Many say the flower should be worn from October 31 on. Others claim that the emblem should be worn from November 1 until Remembrance Day. There's also some speculation about whether the poppy should only be worn after Bonfire Night (a British holiday also known as Guy Fawkes Day, celebrated on the 5th of November).
While Poppy Day is primarily celebrated by residents of the U.K., other countries in the Commonwealth of Nations such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa acknowledge the holiday as well. Here are a few pictures of poppies from around the world:
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