Memorial Day is a commemoration of those who died while serving in a branch of the U.S. military. Americans have observed it in some form since shortly after the end of the Civil War. The federal government declared it a holiday in 1971, and officially recognizes Waterloo, New York, as its birthplace.
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The red poppy became an indelible symbol of Memorial Day with the publication of the poem In Flanders Fields in 1915. Written by John McCrae, a Canadian surgeon serving during the Second Battle of Ypres during World War I, the poem forever married the image of blooming red poppies and the burial crosses of those who died in battle.
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.
In 1918 the poem was again published in Ladies Home Journal, and after reading it at her desk, YMCA Overseas War Secretary Moina Michael vowed to always wear a red poppy as a sign of remembrance. She spent the rest of her life campaigning to have the red poppy adopted by veteran agencies and the public as a symbol of their fallen heroes. And thus the words of a Canadian soldier brought the red poppy as remembrance to America.
About the same time, a soldier returning from Europe brought with him a bag of poppy seeds. H.P. Compton was a veteran of the 36th Division, Army, and was deeply moved by the crosses of American soldiers buried in Flanders Field. When he returned to his home in Georgetown, Texas, he gave his mother the seeds. She in turn planted them in her front yard on East Seventh Street, and from there they spread all over town. In 1990 the Texas Legislature officially recognized Georgetown as the Red Poppy Capital of Texas. Georgetown in turn hosts an annual Red Poppy Festival (this year the festival has been canceled).
This year on Memorial Day we invite all of our readers to remember what the red poppy, and the day it symbolizes, means to all Americans.