You might have noticed British celebrities and politicians sporting red flower pins over the past few days — even Julian Assange wore one. Allow us to explain what they're all about.
The pins are supposed to be poppies and they are in honor of those who died in World War I and those have died in the line of duty since then. The Royal British Legion, an organization that helps veterans, distributes and sells them every year as a way to raise money. They're worn around Remembrance Day (also known as Armistice Day) which is November 11th, for the armistice that ended World War I on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Purists argue about when to start wearing the pin — some feel it should be worn from All Souls Day on November 2nd until Remembrance Sunday (this year on the 12th), while others are donning them earlier, which some people think is like putting up your Christmas lights in October.
The poppy symbol comes from the poem "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae, a seminal poem about World War I. The opening stanza of the poem is as follows:
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.
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Flanders is a region around the border between Belgium and France where several major battles took place. After the war, the fields bloomed with bright red poppies, which is apropos considering the amount of blood spilled there. The tradition of wearing the poppies was started by an American humanitarian named Moina Michael, who, two days before the armistice was signed, pinned one to her coat and later distributed them to veterans at the New York YMCA where she worked. It was adopted as a symbol by the American Legion, and later by other countries — the British commonwealth countries have embraced the symbol most of all. In Scotland, they even have a "botanically correct" version of the pin which has four petals rather than two, and no leaf (they also save a good deal of money each year by omitting the leaf).
The poppy pins aren't without controversy. The Royal British Legion sells commemorative crystal versions of the pins (which could be seen on the judges of X-Factor last weekend) — they're now available on eBay with no portion of the profits given to charity, which is a problem since benefiting veterans is kind of the point of selling them to begin with. There's also the issue of the "white poppies for peace" being sold in Canada, which some feel is appropriating a symbol that should be reserved for Remembrance Day. Prince William recently got involved with a dispute with FIFA — at first the football league was not going to allow English players to wear poppies on their uniforms during a match with Spain this Sunday because their rules state that players uniforms cannot contain political symbols, but they've now relented. They'll allow the poppies to be stitched onto black armbands for the game.
There's also the issue of nationalism; poppy pins are a little like American flag pins, which have evolved over the years from a perfectly sane expression of American pride to a symbol of post-9/11 nationalistic fervor. In Northern Ireland, for example, wearing the poppy pin can be seen as a strongly Unionist gesture, and the fact that British soldiers played an often violent part in the Republic of Ireland's quest for freedom, up through the Troubles and even today, makes it a divisive symbol to some. For most, however, it's just a way to remember veterans of past wars while also helping people today.