Memorial Day, originally called "Decoration Day," was first celebrated on May 30th, 1868, to honor those (Union soldiers) who died in the American Civil War (the South had their own memorials at that time).
After World War I, the day became one to honor all Americans who died fighting any war. But why the poppies?
Poppy seeds lie dormant in the soil, and heavily turning or digging up the soil causes them to sprout. Poppies have long been noted for suddenly "popping up" on battlefields and in graveyards.
Major John McCrae, a Canadian, wrote the poem "In Flanders Fields" the day after the burial of a young friend and student, after seeing the poppies in the cemetery where his student had been buried.
Moina Michael, an American, was very moved by the poem, and wrote a short poem of her own in response, from which these lines are excerpted:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led.
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
She began the tradition of wearing red poppies on Memorial day in honor of those who died serving the nation, also selling poppies and giving the money to a charity benefitting servicemen in need. The tradition of wearing poppies spread and is now practiced in many countries on their own days of remembrance.
Not only did Ms. Michael start the tradition of wearing poppies, she also seems to be responsible for the tradition of selling them to benefit servicemen in need. Many veterans' organizations will be selling them for this Memorial Day. They aren't expensive but they are very valuable. Buy one, wear it at the barbecue or party, and remember what our freedom costs.
In Flanders Fields.
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.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
- Major John McCrae