Heritage

The Heartfelt Reason Why the Royals Wear Poppies So Often

A brief history of the tradition that commemorates those who lost their lives at war.
IMAGE JACK TAYLOR/ GETTY IMAGES
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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. That floral pin is more than just a fashion statement—it's steeped in symbolic significance.

Once a year in November, British citizens (the Queen 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?


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During World War I, after a particularly bloody battle in the fields of Flanders in Belgium, thousands of bright red flowers mysteriously 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 their resilience, entitled “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.

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Wild poppies still bloom in Flanders Fields every year

The 1915 poem was instantly popular, spurring the Royal British Legion—a UK charity organization which to this day supports veterans and their families—to sell 9 million handmade poppies on November 11th. 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.

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Similar to Veterans Day in the States, Remembrance Day, or "Poppy Day," falls on the second Sunday in November and honors the lives and memories of fallen troops. This year the holiday will be celebrated on November 12. There will also be an observed two-minute silence at 11:00 a.m. on November 11th.


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Remembrance Day in London

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. However, some insist that the poppy's placement is dependent on gender, and women should wear it on their right sides. That said, the Queen wears hers on her left shoulder, so we'll just follow her lead.


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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 UK, 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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Remembrance Day celebrated at Cardiff City Stadium in Wales


Remembrance Projection on the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia


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Morgan Rielly of the Canadian hockey team, the Toronto Maples, wears a poppy on his helmet for Remembrance Day.


A Sri Lankan soldier holds a poppy wreath for "Poppy Day."

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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