( Members of the Royal Canadian Legion and RCMP outside of the Legion for Remembrance Day, year unknown, source Peace River Museum Archives.)

Poppy History & Proper Poppy Etiquette

We wear a poppy in the days leading up to Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day, as an outward symbol of thanks, and appreciation to those who fought for our freedom. Noted as a reminder of the enduring flower that grew amongst the graves and fields in the significant poem by Canadian Doctor John McCrae, ‘…the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row…’ These flowers grow wild in northern France and Belgium and watch over the nearly 61,000 Canadian casualties of World War I, and continue as a symbol for the 45, 000 casualties lost in World War II.

The poppy, as a lapel pin, has been worn in Canada traditionally for the two weeks before November 11th after being adopted in 1921, after American Moina Michael was inspired by John McCrae’s poem to make and sell red silk poppies in 1918.  Since that time, there has been a small amount of controversy surrounding the characteristics of a ‘proper’ poppy, and what to do with your poppy once this remembrance observance is considered over. Traditionally in Canada the poppy pin has had red petals and a black centre. In Newfoundland, who joined confederation after World War II, the traditional commemorative emblem with the forget-me-not flower as well as the poppy is worn. Is there any ‘right’ way to appropriately symbolise our remembrance?

There is some controversy as to how long, and for what time period one can wear a poppy. Some find it insulting to continue to wear a poppy for longer than the traditional time frame of two weeks. In 2011, The Royal Canadian Legion commented on this issue, “There is no set period when the Poppy should be worn,” states the organization’s website. “In fact, a person may wear a Poppy at any time. Traditionally, however, the Poppy is worn during the Remembrance period, which is from the last Friday in October to the end of the day on 11 November.” The website continues to say that wearing them at veteran funerals and other commemorative events is completely appropriate.

When you are finished wearing your poppy there is also etiquette surrounding how to ‘dispose’ of them.  The Royal Canadian Legion suggests that when removing your poppy, it is placed at the base of a cenotaph, or at a veteran’s grave at the end of a commemorative ceremony as a sign of respect for veterans and fallen soldiers. It is also suggested that reusing your poppy for next year is considered faux-pas, as in theory it discourages people from contributing to the poppy fund the next year.

Weaving through etiquette, and rules can sometimes be considered a challenge, but the point of Remembrance Day is not to be caught up in the dos and don’ts. It is a period that we have set aside to specifically recall the war and the sacrifices made by those in military conflicts, and the families who supported them. It may not be considered ‘proper’ to wear your poppy 365 days in the year, but it would be truly sad if we forgot and didn’t remind ourselves throughout the year that the soldiers did not just fight for one day of remembrance but for a forever freedom.

This post was researched and written by Laura Love, Collections Technician, Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre.