By Michael Bullington–
At cemeteries in Citrus Heights and across our country, the last Monday in May is set aside to commemorate those men and women who lost their lives in service to our country in all past conflicts.
It began as Decoration Day in 1868, as a tribute to those slain in the War Between the States. Over the years its name changed to Memorial Day and its scope broadened to all conflicts in which our service men and women died.
Memorial Day was designated in 1968 by Congress to take place on the last Monday in May, effective in 1971. This was one of four holidays to be perpetually celebrated on Monday, so as to provide a three-day weekend. It is considered the unofficial beginning of summer and is also the designated weekend for the running of the Indianapolis 500.
Lesser known, but no less poignant, is the celebration of National Poppy Day. It was started by the American Legion Auxiliary in 1920, to commemorate the service of those who had given their lives in service as well as living veterans.
It sought to mirror the symbol of the red poppy that was used to acknowledge the international equivalent of Armistice/Veterans Day, known in Canada as Remembrance Day. National Poppy Day officially takes place on the Friday prior to Memorial Day, hence linking the two holidays.
The history behind the red poppy was rooted in a poem written by Canadian battlefield surgeon, Lt. Colonel John McRae. During the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium, the Germans used chlorine gas for the first time, which along with the usual implements of warfare, claimed 87,000 British and Canadian casualties over the course of one month in the Spring of 1915.
McRae was grieving the loss of a friend in the fighting when he toured the battlefield near the town of Ypres. He was struck not only by the desolation, but by the appearance of red poppies sprouting up across the shattered landscape.
McCrae was moved to write an epitaph to the suffering and loss that he had personally witnessed, and thus we have his time-honored poem, reminding us always of those who never returned home to loved ones.
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 faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
As you walk through the doors of local business establishments this Memorial Day weekend, and you see members of the American Legion selling red poppies, let the words of McCrae’s poem linger in your mind. “In Flanders field, the poppies blow…”
And let this Memorial Day be spent in reflection on the cost it took to build and preserve our great nation.
Michael Bullington is a history buff and resident of Citrus Heights for over 35 years. The Sentinel welcomes guest opinion columns from Citrus Heights residents. To submit an article for publication, click here.