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Ideas to Consider #20 – The Poppy

As many of you know, I watch a lot of the English Premier League, and am a supporter of Everton Football Club in Liverpool.  Their tradition is strong, and for the past twenty years Everton has been intent on recruiting American players to the squad.  It’s the best of both worlds – great English football and tradition with stateside heroes like Timmy Howard, Brian McBride and Landon Donavan.    

For the past two weeks, Premier League teams have been wearing a ‘poppy’ flower on their uniforms as part of Britain’s Remembrance Day.  Further, before each match starts, team captains lay a wreath of poppies down in the center circle as a lone bugler plays in a silent stadium. It’s moving. It’s sobering. It’s respectful.

For years I have watched this tradition, and wondered why a poppy and why Remembrance Day instead of Veterans Day?  

Recently, I learned the poppy comes from a poem, In Flanders Field, by John McCrae.  In it, poppies arise and grow out of the death occurring in the trenches of Belgium during World War I (WWI).  An American WWI volunteer, Moina Michael, read this poem and vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who fought in and assisted with the war.  Eventually, at the National American Legion Conference of 1920, the poppy was adopted as a symbol of remembrance.  

And why Remembrance Day instead of Veterans Day? The British were the first to establish a day of celebration and remembrance on November 11, 1919 when the armistice was signed to end WWI.  King George V held a celebration at Buckingham Palace, and each year on November 11 at 11:00 a.m. a minute of silence is held in the British Commonwealth to remember the ugliness of war, the loss of life and sacrifices made.  During World War II, many countries changed the name to Veterans Day, while the British Commonwealth continued using the phrase – Remembrance Day.

This weekend I watched parts of a few college and NFL football games.  One of the things I noticed was the marked difference between how American sports and British sports observe November 11.  On the sideline, American football team coaches wore team colors in a form of camouflage.  A single, red stripe was added to the Dallas Cowboys helmet to make a red, white and blue stripe in the middle of the helmet.  Military planes flew across stadiums.  Parachuters descended onto fields.  For me, it was not a remembrance day, but a ‘celebration of military day’ designed to stoke feelings of patriotism and fervor for the United States.

In contrast, Remembrance Day sporting celebrations in the UK are simple and quiet. For me, they stoke deep feelings of sympathy toward the loss of life. Longing and loneliness for loved ones away fighting. The pain and hurt of war.  All of it comes from a moment of silence, a single bugler, and the beauty of poppies.  

Consider this statement.  It comes from a former pastor of mine.  ‘We are what we worship.’ In the case of November 11, do we worship war, planes, parachutes, and camouflage?  Or do we worship remembrance, sacrifice, and rebirth?  

I think it is telling how the public in America, the UK and Europe have diverged when it comes to looking at going to war.  Europeans remember the losses and costs of the battles on their continent.  We celebrate the idea of victory, strength, and conquering the other.  

My Idea to Consider is this:  Language and symbols matter. They define our vision and values.  We have choices to make each day.  Let’s choose wisely what we want to worship.

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3 thoughts on “Ideas to Consider #20 – The Poppy

  1. Deb Kay says:

    Thank you for this, Matthew. Very interesting observations regarding the differences between nations on the subject of war. It seems, too, that U.S. citizens can hardly escape the way these holidays are commercialized, especially Veteran’s Day because that soon rolls into Thanksgiving, black Friday and Christmas. Yes, let’s choose wisely what we want to worship.

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    • Dick Vander Molen says:

      Thanks, Matt, for reminding me of the poem In Flanders Field. A few years ago, Pat and I visited the WW 1 museum in KC. As we walked across the glass floor of the entrance, we noticed thousands of poppies. Each one of them represented one thousand heroes that lost their lives—a very moving experience. I would suggest a visit.

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