The week I moved to London I noticed a strange phenomenon: everyone I passed on the street wore a red paper flower pinned to their coat. Being new to the city, I wasn’t sure what to make of this. Was it a fashion trend? A local tradition? Somebody help a foreign girl out! After much observation, I learned that these pins were poppies, and they were worn in honor of Poppy Day.
Poppy Day, also called Remembrance Day, takes place in the UK every year on November 11th—the day that World War I hostilities ended in 1918—and commemorates the members of the armed forces that have lost their lives in battle. It’s similar to Veterans Day in the US (and takes place on the same day), but is celebrated with poppies—a nod to the flowers that grew in the battlefields of Flanders during World War I—instead of general apathy.
Every year in the run-up to Poppy Day, The Royal British Legion sells the paper flower pins in tube stations, supermarkets, and other busy areas to raise money for its welfare work for armed forces families. Many people buy the pins, wearing them in memory of the fallen and confusing fresh-off-the-plane expats like myself.
But the commemoration doesn’t stop there. Black cab drivers affix big red poppies to the fronts of their taxis, city councils tie them around lamp posts, and people lay wreaths full of them at the foot of World War I memorials around the country.
Tomorrow will be a particularly special Poppy Day, as this year is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. As such, Londoners are not only pinning on their poppies, but also taking the commemoration to the next level.
In addition to museum exhibitions, ceremonial events, and the traditional two minutes of silence at 11am, there is a huge art installation at the Tower of London that features 888,246 ceramic poppies—one for every British fatality in World War I.
The exhibition is one of the most beautiful and powerful displays of memory I’ve seen in London, and a great tribute to the fallen. Its fields and waves of poppies have drawn visitors from all over the world since its installation over the summer, and are an evocative and moving commemoration of Poppy Day.
And now that I actually know what Poppy Day is, I’m one of the many locals, expats, and visitors leaning over the guard rail to see the ceramic flower field and taking a moment to be thankful for those that gave their lives.