I have recently taken to starting each day by coloring a drawing provided by an app I downloaded to my phone and iPad. The process I find soothing to my soul. It seems to lend me some measure of creative focus and gives me time to think about the things I want to accomplish during the day. And I find that on days when I have difficulty with pain and depression, the process of coloring apparently shifts my focus away from the pain and darkness that invade my life on a regular basis.
Today’s picture, as you can see above, was the poppy, which I found appropriate for Veterans Day as the poppy has long been a symbol used to remember soldiers who died in warfare. Despite this, seeing it immediately lifted my spirits. You see, the poppy is my favorite flower. You might have already got that impression from the background pictures I have chosen for my website and Facebook page. But you might not understand why.
I have especially loved the red poppy ever since I moved to Europe for three years. In Europe, red poppies cover huge swaths of open fields and grassland. My first sight of the poppy fields in Germany where we lived took my breath away.
Having been born and raised in California, the only poppie I ever saw were the orange and yellow California poppies that decorate the dry hills and fields of my native state. The California poppy is brilliant and beautiful during its short growth period in Spring, but with few exceptions it does not seem to grow here in the wild abandon typical of the European varieties. And the California poppy’s flowering time is extremely short.
This poppy is a common weed in Europe and is found in many locations. They are natural perennials that reseed themselves every year, constantly increasing the number of acres they grow in every year. There are a lot of different colors available, but the red poppy has a long history of unique symbolism throughout history.
Poppies have long been used in many cultures as a symbol of sleep, peace, and death. The poppy is a symbol of Morpheus, the son of Sleep (Hypnos) and the Greek god of dreams. This may be because the poppy has been used by humans in a medicinal form since ancient times to aid people with insomnia and cause a restful sleep. The opium derived from the plant and seeds has been used to control pain for thousands of years, allowing the patient taking it to sleep through the worst of the pain. Victorian doctors often prescribed it to help alleviate the pain of grief as well. And patients who used opium described vivid dreams while under its influence.
Poppies were also sacred to Demeter who was said to concoct an infusion of poppies (like a tea) in order to sleep through her sorrow while her daughter, Persephone, was absent from her side. Persephone’s trips to the underworld to visit her husband, Hades, were cyclical and timed to the seasons. Her absence was believed to have caused the winter, and her time in the underworld signified slumber in the cycle of life. The appearance of the poppies in Spring symbolized Demeter’s joy at the return of her daughter.
Poppies hold a special place in Chinese art, as they represent the loyalty and faith between lovers. According to Chinese legend, a beautiful and courageous woman, Lady Yee, was married to Hsiang Yu, a warrior with Herculean strength. When Hsiang led his troops into battle, Lady Yee chose to follow him and stood by his side in every battle. In Chinese symbolism, the poppy represents rest, beauty and success. Red and pink flower represent life and celebration. While white flowers represent innocence and purity in the American culture, they are the opposite in the Chinese culture. White represents death and ghosts to the Chinese people and so white poppies are often found at funerals.
In Christianity, poppy symbolism represents death as a period of tranquil slumber, and is a metaphor of the resurrection, as the red petals of the poppy symbolize the blood of a sacrificed Christ. Poppies have long been used as emblems on tombstones to symbolize eternal sleep and resurrection.
The poppy that is used for wartime remembrance is Papaver rhoeas, the red-flowered “corn poppy,” so named because of its annual appearance in the grain fields of Europe. Following the World War I trench warfare in the poppy fields of Flanders, these poppies have become a symbol of remembrance of soldiers who have died during wartime. Flanders is the setting of the famous poem “In Flanders Fields” by the Canadian surgeon and soldier John McCrae.
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.
-Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (1872 – 1918)
In recent years, white poppies, a purely human creation, have become a political symbol indicating an anti-war mindset. Unfortunately, while this use of the poppy is designed to espouse a positive message against conflict in a war-torn world, white poppies have engendered a lot of controversary and have caused some very negative reactions when used to protest unpopular wars.
Yet, I think the poppy means so much to me because as a genealogist my work has been designed to remember our ancestors who have passed on. While the scarlet corn poppy has developed such a martial symbolism in our society, I prefer to think of it as a symbol of all of those family members who have passed on.
To me, the poppy is a flower which invariably brings to mind all the family whose lives led to the creation of me and my own family. They were the ones who went before us, many of whom died to make this world a better place. Yet many of our ancestors, including the women, worked hard to build a life here in America. Their efforts created a nation that is one of the few in this world where people have the freedom to say and be anything, without fear of government reprisal.
I have ancestors who fought in the Revolution. I have ancestors who fought in the War of 1812, and on both sides of the Civil War, and both World Wars. During the Twentieth Century many of the women in my family became nurses who provided care for the soldiers who were wounded or died as a result of those wounds. But before that there were just as many women who fought alongside their men to build a home in the wilderness. They fought pestilence, severe weather, more dangers than those of us today can even imagine. They often uprooted their families to move across the continent in an effort to make a better life than the ones they left behind.
Despite the problems of our society, I believe they left our country a much better place than it was when they first arrived on its shores.
I consider the poppy an emblem not just to remember the fallen soldiers, but one to be use in remembrance of all of those ancestors whose blood still run in my veins and the veins of my children.