I’m Canadian, and in my homeland, we honor our veterans on November 11th, or Remembrance Day as we call it. It marks the end of the violence during World War 1. As you might imagine, it is a day to remember those who have served in the armed forces, to defend our freedom.
Remembrance Day is not a ‘holiday’ like Memorial Day, however. Everyone goes to work. Children go to school. Municipal governments plan ceremonies around their War epitaphs or memorials, or in public squares. Kids make wreaths of paper or other craft materials to hang on crosses, or lay at the base of monuments. And beautifully (although I didn’t think it was so beautiful when I was a school girl), at 11:11am on the 11th day, of the 11th month, we stand silent for one minute. We pay our respect to fallen soldiers, and those who have sacrificed for us by going to war. We, for even just one minute, focus our intent on simply thinking of what it means to be free, and what we would be willing to give up in the name of democracy.
And in the days leading up to Remembrance Day, everyone wears a ‘faux’ poppy on their lapel, or coat, or t-shirt – whatever you are wearing, a poppy is pinned to you.
I’ve been living in the USA for the last few years and have never seen anyone wearing a poppy. A few days ago, I met a veteran at the grocery store, and, in exchange for a donation, he gave me a poppy! I was elated! Poppies are such a huge part of our culture in Canada, I never considered they weren’t a ‘thing’ here… and I’ve missed them.
I hope, when you meet a veteran, you take a moment to speak to them, shake their hand, thank them for their service to this awesome country we live in, and maybe put a few dollars in their kettle. And if you are lucky enough to receive a poppy, I want you to know the importance of this tradition, and why poppies are an incredibly simple and beautiful way to display your respect for soldiers.
Let me tell you a story…
In Guelph, Ontario, not far from where I was born and raised, a boy named John McCrae was born, in 1872. He was said to be smart, graduating from a collegiate high school at 16, and winning a prestigious scholarship to the University of Toronto. He was also said to be warm and kind, with a poetic soul. In his 20’s he was a published poet, but he also studied mathematics, English, and eventually, medicine. He became a physician. During medical school, however, John decided to fight in the South African War, and postponed his studies for a time.
When WWI began, Canada was automatically involved because of our allegiance to the British Empire. John was appointed brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery with the rank of Major and second-in-command. Before leaving for war, he wrote to a friend, saying, “It is a terrible state of affairs, and I am going because I think every bachelor, especially if he has experience of war, ought to go. I am really rather afraid, but more afraid to stay at home with my conscience.” (Prescott. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae.)
John tended to hundreds of wounded soldiers in his time at war. In April of 1915, John was stationed in the trenches near Ypres during one of the deadliest and most horrific times of the war. The area was known as Flanders. One of his closest friends was killed, and buried in a make-shift grave, along with other soldiers, marked by simple wooden crosses. Poppies grew among them.
The day after his friend passed away, John wrote a poem entitled, “In Flanders Fields.” It has survived as an epic piece of WWI history, and in Canada, on November 11th, year after year, school children recite his poem, truthfully, having little understanding of its significance or meaning.
As an adult, I love, In Flanders Fields. I’m so grateful for the years of hearing it, it’s measure and verse etched deeply into my soul. I think of it’s words when I hear Taps playing, when I think of our Veteran’s, and when, on November 11th, at 11:11am, I still remember those who fought for me – both in Canada and the United States of America – so I could have this beautiful life I live.
In Flanders Fields
By Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae
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 you break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
From this haunting verse, a culture of empathy and gratefulness lives on – through school children and adults who choose to remember. A few years after writing the poem, John McCrae succumbed to illness, after having been ‘changed’ by the war, never the same warm and happy man he had been when we left. His story is a reminder to me of all war takes from those who brave it – safety, innocence, peace, and even personality. Lest we forget – lest we forget.
Wear your poppy with respect and remembrance, knowing the story of John McCrae and his poem. I’m so proud of my Canadian heritage, and of the brave men and women who sacrificed for me. And I’m so thankful to America – land of the free – for gracing my family with the security that living in the ‘home of the brave’ provides.