Sunday, January 01, 2006

Remembrance Day Poppies

Armistice Day is no longer observed with much emphasis in the U.S., but it's still an important period in England; after all they were much more directly affected by the war. The day itself, and the following Sunday, are marked with wreath-laying ceremonies, veterans wear their service medals to commemorative services, and everyone wears a red paper poppy.

This past November I observed Remembrance Day for the second time, and began to understand what it means. This day is the English equivalent of Armistice Day in the U.S.: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, marking the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. This was the War to End All Wars, but as we know it didn't. Remembrance Day now also memorializes the dead from all the wars since then.

As a child I remember that in school, we stood for a few minutes of silence at 11:00 am on November 11, and members of the American Legion were on the street corners, selling red crepe-paper poppies. The money collected went to benefit disabled veterans.

Many people are now unaware of the symbolism of the poppy. Following the second battle of Ypres during the First World War, Major John McCrae, a physician in the Canadian army, wrote a poem that begins:

"In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row. . . "

The crosses marked the graves of soldiers killed in the bloody battle that had taken place in the area called Flanders Fields. Some people noted that the poppies bloomed more abundantly than usual the year after the battle, perhaps taking nourishment from the blood and bones that were buried under the soil. There are other poetic meanings associated with the poppy and you can read more here.

We were in London the week after Remembrance Day, and I walked to the Cenotaph, the war memorial standing in the middle of Whitehall Street, near the government buildings, and not far from Parliament Square. This is where the Queen and representatives of all the members of the Commonwealth lay wreaths on Remembrance Sunday. I was amazed to see the pavement covered with red poppies.

Further along, the sight at Westminster Abbey was even more remarkable. The grass was covered with row after row of small wooden crosses, each decorated with a poppy. Each cross (or Star of David, or Crescent) was inscribed with the name of a person who had died in the defense of their country. The crosses were arranged by regiment, and a map showed where the area where each regiment was located.

In an alcove of the Abbey, there was a Poppy Workshop where anyone, for a small contribution, could create another cross. I spoke with the man at the Poppy Workshop and he explained that the crosses remain in the yard for a week, and are then taken away. They seem to be saved for the following year, and it looked like a person could ask the Poppy Workshop to make a cross and plant it in the appropriate place.

The man at the Poppy Workshop also told me that they had supplied poppies to television productions filmed ahead of time, to be broadcast on Remembrance Day. I had noted poppies worn by the actors in a dramatization of a P.D. James mystery story that was set during this time period. If you're a sharp-eyed-royal-watcher, you may have noticed Prince Charles wearing a red poppy during his November visit to the U.S.

Next November, if you see a BBC newscaster or a British celebrity wearing a poppy, you'll know what it's all about.


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