Poppies and Gaelic
When I lived in the U.S., I noticed that a few people would wear poppies for Veterans Day on November 11. But I never did, and my daughter was too young to notice. In Canada, however, November 11 is called Remembrance Day and many people wear poppies before and on the day as a sign of respect to all servicepersons killed in conflicts since 1914.
Halifax has always been a military city, with the former British fort called the Citadel dominating the city centre since 1749 (now as a national historic site). CFB Halifax on Halifax Harbour is home of the Maritime Forces Atlantic Headquarters (Canada’s East Coast Navy), and CFB Shearwater, the former Air Force Base. Needless to say, a large number of Halifax-area residents serve in the military. Remembrance Day ceremonies are observed and heavily attended all around the area.
The Royal Canadian Legion’s poppies also have another layer of meaning, as part of a Poppy Campaign which raises funds for the Poppy Fund which is used for care and benevolent support of veterans and their dependents. So it is both a symbol of remembrance, and a means of supporting veterans who are alive and in need.
When my daughter was 5 years old and in kindergarten (grade primary), she started to notice the poppies. One of her friends at school, the daughter of a servicewoman, was wearing one on her coat. My daughter touched it and her friend became very upset, scolding her for touching the poppy without permission. In this way, my daughter started to understand that the poppy was something that was very important to some people.
On the way home from school she asked me if she could have one too. I told her to ask my husband, who is a veteran. When we got home, she noticed that he was wearing one on his jacket, too. He promised to get her a poppy of her own. In the meantime, he unpinned his from his jacket and pinned it onto her coat in time for her to wear it to church on Sunday. She was so pleased to have one of her own. I tried to explain to her what it meant as we drove to church, but she didn’t quite understand it yet.
When we arrived at church, most of the people there were wearing poppies. We received a church service program from an usher and took our seats. I noticed that the cover of the church program was from the Royal Canadian Legion, and it featured a large colour photo of a young child’s hand holding a poppy, and an adult’s hand holding the young child’s hand. The caption read “Remembrance… pass it on!”
The interesting thing to me is that my daughter had known nothing about poppies before the previous week. And she still didn’t quite get it – she was only five after all. But what struck me the most about the poppy was how quickly she figured out that it was important. She observed how people all around her were using the poppy symbol, and the meaning they accorded to it. She quickly made up her mind that she wanted to participate, too. I only tried to explain what it meant after she had already decided that she wanted one.
The idea of making artificial poppies to commemorate the war dead, in exchange for donations to provide support to wounded veterans, originated with U.S. education professor Moina Michael after she was inspired by Canadian physician and poet John McCrae’s war remembrance poem “In Flanders Fields.” The poem itself is a point of national pride in Canada, where until recently it was represented on the reverse of the ten-dollar bill as part of a theme of “Remembrance and Peacekeeping.”
French YMCA Secretariat representative Anna E. Guérin was inspired by Moina Michael’s idea developed at the National American Legion convention, and she promoted it with success in France. She later visited Canada to promote it to the Great War Veterans Association. This organization, which later became the Royal Canadian Legion, adopted the poppy as the national flower of Remembrance on July 5, 1921.
The Royal Canadian Legion knows that wearing poppies to commemorate the war dead, a practice which was brand new in 1921, must be deliberately promoted in order to survive. And in order for the culture to be passed on, people must see some reason for doing it. The Legion deliberately encourages the practice of wearing poppies and gives it greater meaning by using poppy donations to support veterans. Without the Legion manufacturing the poppies and distributing them to Legion posts, without Legion veterans setting up tables and offering them to others in public places, people would not be reminded to obtain them. Many people approve of and go along with the Legion’s efforts because they have found meaning in the red poppy symbol for themselves, whether personal, familial, or national.
Others have argued for using white poppies instead of the red remembrance poppy symbol, as a symbol of pacifism, a protest against the specific nationalist meanings of the red poppy, and/or several other related reasons.
Whatever you think about the remembrance poppy symbol, I believe that it also gives us a useful way to start thinking about how new traditions are started, and how language and culture are passed on.
Can you imagine children in Canada asking to learn Gaelic, and soaking it up, because they see it on display all around them? Because other children and adults are using it and acting as though it really matters? Because they don’t want to miss out on something good? It would be the reverse of the language shift we’ve seen from Gaelic to English. How much hard work would it take to achieve even a tiny fraction of that taken-for-grantedness again?