Growing up, Memorial Day always seemed more about picnics and barbeques and the official day the pools opened up. Sure, you definitely saw an increase in American flags hanging from front porches and mailboxes, but the general focus of the day lay more on a sense of patriotism than talking about why it was a national holiday in the first place. Much of the same can be said for Veterans Day in November, but on an even lesser scale without the cookouts. I’d even argue that discussion of what these days represent is best found in local elementary schools, where the kids take every holiday seriously and teachers have coordinated activities planned out for everything, even President’s Day – which, let’s be honest, no one else “celebrates” except for malls and car dealerships looking for yet another reason for this weekend’s early-bird sale.
Coming from this cultural perspective, I first observed another nation’s way of honoring their troops and veterans in London last November for their Remembrance Day. The day finds its origins in the same event that inspired the American Veterans Day – the signing of the armistice at 11am on the 11th of November, 1918, bringing an end to World War I. While in London, I noticed people started wearing red paper poppies pinned to the lapel of their jackets and coats sometime towards the end of October. I was immediately intrigued and soon discovered this was linked to Remembrance Day. After a pound or two donation at Sainsbury’s, I soon joined the masses and began to wear one myself. I even attended a memorial service at the university where I worked, with fifty-odd other people gathered in a courtyard, singing hymns led by a clergy member. When living in another country, I’ve found there may be no better place to start understanding their culture than to begin with their holidays.
And so I found myself last Saturday, waking at the painful hour of 6am to walk to Cathedral Square for a dawn service commemorating Anzac Day – ANZAC standing for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Held each year on the 25th of April, the day most importantly remembers the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I, one of the first major wars New Zealand participated in, then as just a young country of one million. Over eight thousand NZ forces landed at Gallipoli, with casualties reaching 2,721. In the entirety of the war, 16,697 New Zealanders were killed and 41,317 wounded – equaling a staggering 58 percent casualty rate. When you look at the numbers in that light, it’s not hard to understand why the war had such an impact on the country. The New Zealand government’s website dedicated to Anzac Day includes this quote:
“Although Anzac Day, the anniversary of the first day of conflict, does not mark a military triumph, it does remind us of a very important episode in New Zealand’s history. Great suffering was caused to a small country by the loss of so many of its young men. But the Gallipoli Campaign showcased attitudes and attributes – bravery, tenacity, practicality, ingenuity, loyalty to King and comrades – that helped New Zealand define itself as a nation, even as it fought unquestioningly on the other side of the world in the name of the British Empire” (www.anzac.govt.nz).
In the pre-dawn darkness, as I wove in and out of former service members in full uniform and youth that seemed to be part of programs similar to junior ROTC, I appreciated the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself. I loved being able to simply stand silently while the voices of eight-thousand people rose around me to sing the national anthem of New Zealand.
God of nations at they feet,
In the bonds of love we meet,
Hear our voices, we entreat,
God defend our free land
Guard Pacific’s triple star
From the shafts of strife and war,
Maker her praises heard afar
God defend New Zealand.
Having left my home country where court cases have been argued over whether or not to remove “one nation under God” from our Pledge of Allegiance, I am surprised that such a forward-thinking, liberal country as New Zealand has a national anthem that includes three direct references to God. It makes the American squabbles over lines like “In God we trust” look petty and irrelevant. However, towards the end of the service the British National Anthem was sung and, as much as I listened in respect and admiration to the singing Kiwis, I of course can never resist humming along to “God Save the Queen” with the words of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Call me a rebel, if you will, but I did it in London and I’ve now done it here.
But as similar as the service was to many other memorials, filled with hymns, speakers, and even a flyover by a RNZAF Boeing 757, I couldn’t help but notice the recurring emphasis placed on peace. As Angella Hillis, representing Australia at the service, spoke in the dedication: “It is fitting also that we remember those men and women who gave their lives in other conflicts, in the hope that their sacrifice might lead to a lasting peace.” It seemed the day’s events and speeches always came back to peace. I found this an interesting difference, being from a country that has an enormous military presence throughout the world and a new conflict seems to begin just as another ends. Peace isn’t something so tangible for us. Even a quick comparison of rough figures found online shows that the budget for the US Department of Defense is six times the annual GDP of New Zealand. It’s crazy to think about. Being in New Zealand has given me such a new perspective on the role a country may play in international affairs.
I was excited to find the tradition of wearing poppies a part of Anzac Day as well, even if they weren’t as readily available on street corners and in the supermarkets as in London. The afternoon before Anzac Day, I was running an errand for work when I saw an old man with a box of poppies near my office. I asked him if he’d still be there in about half an hour once I was off and would have money to buy one. After saying he’d be gone by that point, he handed me a poppy and said, “Don’t worry, love. I don’t care, as long as you’re supporting the flag.”
But it wasn’t until my sister asked me the very valid question – “Why the poppy?” – that I decided to look into it myself. It turns out that a certain region of Belgium has seen a lot of action when it comes to battles, from the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century to the fighting that took place during World War I. And what was the first sign of life in that particular soil that was now the grave of countless soldiers? Red poppies. Also known as Flanders poppies after the region, the flower has become symbolic of their sacrifice, not only for its vivid color so similar to that of blood, but for the specific conditions it needs to grow. What struck me is that poppies only flower in rooted-up soil, “found on any disturbed ground” (plantlife.org.uk). So where one may be overwhelmed by destruction and death, red poppies bloom, thriving in the turned-up soil and bringing hope to a place of loss.
One website even explains that poppy seeds “can lay in the ground for years without germinating, and only grow after the ground has been disturbed.” But isn’t that the case for so many of us, though? Where a crisis brings out our true character, where we don’t grow until forced into new and difficult circumstances? And so it seems the poppy appeals to us as more than a symbol of remembrance – it is a symbol of courage, the possibility of growth, and the hope of regeneration.