A Bit of Memorial Day History and The Memorial Day Poppy

A field of 150 red plastic poppies was created by the Sag Harbor American Legion Auxiliary in front of the World War I memorial on Main Street. Christine Sampson photo

By Jeannie Notturno

Memorial Day is much more than a three-day weekend that marks the beginning of summer. Too many people, especially the nation’s thousands of combat veterans, this day, which has a history stretching back all the way to the Civil War, is an important reminder of those who died in the service of their country.

There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all. It is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nations’ service.

Decoration Day (Memorial Day) was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. On May 5, 1868, Logan declared “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and those bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

After World War I, observances also began to honor those who had died in all of America’s wars. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be celebrated the last Monday in May. (Veteran’s Day, a day set aside to honor all veterans, living and dead, is celebrated each year on November 11th.)

The Memorial Day Poppy started with a poem by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian physician who enlisted to help the allies in the war. On May 3, 1915 during a lull in the battle with the nub of a pencil, he scratched on a page from his dispatch book “In Flanders Fields.” The poem expressed the colonel’s grief after he witnessed the death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, 22 years old, and over the many soldiers who he watched die on the Flanders battlefields which were located in an area between western Belgium and northern France. In the poem the colonel describes how poppies grow among the rows and rows of graves.

In 1918, Moina Michael, an American woman, wrote a poem of her own in tribute to the opening lines of McCrae’s poem called;

“We Shall Keep The Faith”

We cherish too, the Poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led,

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies

Ms. Michael then adopted the custom of wearing a red poppy in memory of the sacrifices of war and also as a symbol of keeping the faith. She was the first to wear one, and in November 1918, bought a bouquet of poppies and handed them to businessmen where she worked. She asked them to wear the poppy as a tribute to the fallen. Moina Michael thought the flowers should be used as a symbol in remembrance of the war. Her efforts resulted in the poppy being adopted as the “United States” national emblem of Remembrance by the American Legion on September 29, 1920. Although poppies are used to honor both Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, it is traditionally done on the latter. In 1948 the U.S. Post Office honored Ms. Michael — known as the “Poppy Lady” — for her humanitarian efforts and for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3-cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.

A French woman, Madame Guerin, visiting the United States, learned of the custom and took it one step further. When she returned to France, she decided to hand make the red poppies and sell them to raise money for the benefit of the orphaned and destitute women and children in war-torn areas of France. She convinced veterans’ organizations in several countries to sell the poppy to help underprivileged children in France. In 1922, the organization of the American and French Children’s League was disbanded, so Madame Guerin brought her campaign to the United States. Madame Guerin was still keen to raise funds for the French people who had suffered the destruction of their communities. She asked the American organization Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) to help her with the distribution of her French-made poppies throughout the United States. That year the VFW assisted with the sale of the poppies in American to help keep up the much needed funds for the battle-scarred areas of France.

Two years later the VFW started their “Buddy” Poppy program and was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans for disabled veterans and their families in the United States.

For more than 80 years, both the American Legion and the VFW’s Poppy and Buddy Poppy programs, respectively, have raised millions of dollars in support of veterans’ welfare and the well being of their dependents. Those red poppies are still assembled by disabled and needy veterans in VA hospitals.

The Poppy’s symbolism is both powerful and compelling. The petals of red stand for the vast outpouring of blood; the yellow and black center, the mud and desolation of all battlefields; the green of the stem is symbolic of the forest, meadows and fields where generations of Americans have perished to make generations free. The stem represents the courage and determination of our fallen warriors. The assembled product, a flower, is a symbol of Resurrection, which is sure to follow.

Each year around Memorial Day, VFW members and American Legion Auxiliary members distribute millions of bright red poppies in exchange for contributions to assist disabled and hospitalized veterans. The program provides multiple benefits to the veterans and to the community. The hospitalized veterans who make the flowers are able to earn a small wage, which helps to supplement their incomes and makes them feel more self-sufficient. The physical and mental activity provides many therapeutic benefits as well. Donations are used exclusively to assist and support veterans and their families. The poppy also reminds the community of the past sacrifices and continuing needs of our veterans. The poppy has become a nationally known and recognized symbol of sacrifice and is worn to honor the men and women who served and died for their country in all wars.

The Chelberg & Battle American Legion Auxiliary of Sag Harbor is distributing poppies all this month and along the parade route in Sag Harbor on Memorial Day and at the Legion Hall on Bay Street.

Please support our veterans, and let us never forget our obligation to those who have given so much and served so gallantly to protect this great land of ours and those of us who live here. It’s a small way to show our respect. Remember and wear a poppy, for “Freedom is Not Free.” God bless our troops and God bless America! Honor the dead. Aid the living. Wear a paper poppy every Memorial Day.

Jeannie Notturno, Poppy Chairman

American Legion Ladies Auxiliary

Chelberg and Battle Post #388