A Mother’s Day Look at the History of the Holiday

A Mother’s Day Look at the History of the Holiday

This past Sunday was the date set aside to celebrate and honor MOTHERS in numerous countries around the world. Perhaps not known to many of you (as it was not known to me until I did a quick Google search) is that the second Sunday in May is designated as “Mother’s Day” in over 50 countries across the world. WOW! So what is the history of this fabulous holiday? While having nothing directly to do with Jane Austen, I still thought it would be nice to share the origins. As you will soon read, Jane probably DID celebrate Mother’s Day, even if not quite in the way we do so today.

Celebrations of mothers and motherhood can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who held festivals in honor of the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. The modern holiday has zero relation to these far past commemorations, however, other than the broad understanding that ALL mothers are amazing and worthy of respect and honor.

The clear precedent for Mother’s Day as we know it began in the United Kingdom centuries ago, but much like those ancient festivals noted above, initially had nothing to do with human mothers. The tradition began as “Mothering Sunday” and was a day for Christians to visit their “mother church” for a special service during the Holy month of Lent. Specifically, it was a day to honor and give thanks to the Virgin Mary, also known as Mother Mary (hence the later connection to earthly mothers). Traditionally, domestic servants, apprentices, and workers (who were often quite young) were given the day off to travel to their hometown so they could worship with their families in the local church or cathedral. Naturally, this led to a yearly family reunion, of sorts, with scattered relatives bringing gifts for their loved ones. Over time the Mothering Sunday celebration shifted into a secular holiday and evolved into a day to honor the matriarchs in the family. After all, who doesn’t love their mum best of all? Tokens of appreciation, such as flowers, were common gifts. The custom faded to a degree in later centuries, but saw a resurgence after the establishment of Mother’s Day holidays in other western countries. The date, however, has remained in line with Lent, specifically set for the fourth Sunday during Lent — or three weeks before Easter Sunday — so the precise date varies between March and April rather than the more common May for the rest of the world. This year Mother’s Day in the UK fell on March 11 and in 2019 it will be on March 31.

In the United States, the origins of a Mother’s Day concept date to the pre-Civil War years when Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia helped start “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to teach local women how to properly care for their children. These clubs became a unifying force when the country became divided by the Civil War. In 1868, Jarvis organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” at which mothers gathered with former Union and Confederate soldiers to promote reconciliation.

At roughly the same time, 1870 to be exact, abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe wrote a call to action called the “Mother’s Day Proclamation” that asked mothers to unite in promoting world peace. In 1873, Howe campaigned for a “Mother’s Peace Day” to be celebrated every June 2, although this did not become a reality. Other early Mother’s Day pioneers included temperance activist Juliet Calhoun Blakely, who in the 1870s inspired a local Mother’s Day event in Albion, Michigan, and Mary Towles Sasseen and Frank Hering who both strived (unsuccessfully) to organize a formalized Mothers’ Day recognition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Anna Jarvis

While others may have done their part to advance the concept, the final credit is given to the daughter of the woman who first conceived of the idea. Upon the death of Ann Reeves Jarvis in 1905, her daughter Anna Jarvis devoted herself to honoring her mother by continuing the work Ann had started by setting aside a day to honor all mothers because she believed a mother is “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”

After gaining financial backing from a Philadelphia department store owner named John Wanamaker, in May 1908 Anna Jarvis organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at St. Andrews Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia as a memorial to the departed Ann Reeves Jarvis. That same day, thousands of people attended a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s retail stores in Philadelphia. With the success of these two joint Mother’s Day celebrations, and believing that American holidays were biased toward the achievements of the male gender, Jarvis resolved to have the holiday added to the national calendar. She initiated a massive letter writing campaign to newspapers and prominent politicians, and established the Mother’s Day International Association to advance her cause.

By 1912 many states, towns, and churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday. Finally, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. From there the concept spread far and wide, as I noted in the first paragraph. Today, Mother’s Day is looked upon as a lovely commemoration of mothers with flowers, sentimental cards, and feminine gifts as a way for children of all ages to show their appreciation to mom. It is difficult to imagine anything negative about the origins of Mother’s Day, isn’t it? Well, not so fast!

A woman holds a 1934 poster advertising a Mother’s Day stamp that was designed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

As it turns out, Anna Jarvis clung tightly to the purpose behind Mother’s Day, that being solely to celebrate mothers. She vehemently fought against the inevitable commercialization of the holiday, any fundraising for charitable causes linked to the day— she called them “charitable Christian pirates” — and a stamp personally designed by President Roosevelt. In 1934, the postage stamp FDR created for Mother’s Day featured the famed portrait “Whistler’s Mother” by James Abbot McNeill Whistler. Anna Jarvis did not approve of the design (she thought it was ugly) and refused to allow the words “Mother’s Day” to be printed on the stamp. Jarvis was also vocal in her disdain for lumping the holiday with any other cause, such as the anti-war sentiments of Julia Ward Howe, or the male influence of Frank Hering. Hering, a former football coach and faculty member at Notre Dame, proposed the idea of a national Mother’s Day prior to Jarvis, and although his intentions were pure and on par with Jarvis’, she blasted the idea of a “father” involved in a 1920’s statement titled, “Kidnapping Mother’s Day: Will You Be An Accomplice?” There seems to be little doubt according to most commentators that Jarvis — who never married or had children and signed everything as “Anna Jarvis, Founder of Mother’s Day”— was overcome with ego. Sadly, her failed battle to stop the holiday’s commercialization and refusal to profit from the day despite ample opportunity left her emotionally spent and penniless. She died at the age of 84 after living the last four years of her life in a sanitarium.

What a shame poor Ann could not have embraced the beauty of the holiday she fought so hard to establish in honor of her own giving, selfless mother. If only she could have understood that over one hundred years later, mothers all over the world would be celebrated and honored. And speaking for myself, I rather like the Hallmark cards, flowers, and nice gifts!

I hope you all enjoyed this bit of history. Whether a mother or not, most of us have a mother or mother-figure whom we love. I hope your Mother’s Day was special. I would love to hear about it.

3 Responses to A Mother’s Day Look at the History of the Holiday

  1. For a worthy day… that was a surprising history. Poor Ann, such a shame… thanks for the research and submitting this post.

  2. I live in Ireland and we had Mother’s Day in March which was lucky for me as my Mam died in April so this was our last one even though we didn’t know it. She was in hospital but all the family went in together on the day and brought her cards and chocolates. You never know what’s around the corner so should enjoy every celebration that comes along. A lovely post.

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