The Surprising History of Mother's Day

The Surprising History of Mother's Day

Celebrating Mother's Day isn't just a modern tradition. Like so many other holidays, it's difficult to attribute to a single source. Cultures as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans were known to hold celebrations in honor of mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. Later Christian festival known as Mothering Sunday was widely celebrated in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe. During this time, held on the fourth Sunday in Lent, the faithful would return their "mother church" for a special service.

As time marched onward, the tradition became a more secular holiday, in which children would give gifts of flowers or small tokens of appreciation to their mothers. While the tradition waned throughout the next centuries, it was later adopted into the modern Mother's Day holiday we celebrate today.

The Battle for Mother's Day

The roots of our modern holiday are, generally, attributed to Anna Jarvis.

anna jarvis

Anna Jarvis, the mother of Mother's Day. Photo Wikipedia.

A native of West Virginia, Anna Reeves Jarvis began local clubs to teach women how to properly care for their children. Known as "Mothers' Day Work Clubs, these clubs became a unifying force for women in the aftermath of Civil War America. In 1868 Jarvis organized "Mothers' Friendship Day," where mothers gathered with former soldiers from both sides of the conflict to promote reconciliation.

Here, there is an important distinction to make, as Anna Reeves Jarvis had a daughter, also named Anna Jarvis. The latter Jarvis would go on to become the Mother of Mother's Day. Anna, herself, credited the idea of Mother's Day to her own mother, Anna Reeves Jarvis. Though she would take the idea of the holiday in a new direction. It is believed that Reeves Jarvis' original idea for the holiday was a day of community service, shared with other mothers. Her own experience bearing children had not been a pleasant one. While she bore 13 children, only 4 lived to adulthood. According to Katharine Lane Antolini, an assistant professor of history an gender studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College and author of Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for the Control of Mother's DayReeves Jarvis' imagined a day on which mothers would get together in service to help out other mothers who were less fortunate.

The more modern idea of the holiday, championed by Anna Jarvis the younger, came about in the wake of her mother's death in 1905, as a way of honoring the sacrifices mothers made for their children.

With some financial backing from a department store owner in Philadelphia, John Wanamaker, in May 1908 Anna organized the first Mother's Day celebration. Following the success of the celebration, Anna resolved to have Mother's Day added to the official calendar of US holidays. She began a massive letter writing campaign to newspapers and prominent politicians, urging the adoption of the holiday. By 1912, many states towns and churches had adopted it as an annual holiday, leading Anna to found the Mother's Day International Association to promote the cause. Finally, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially established the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day.

The battle, though, did not end there. For the rest of her life, Anna would fight the commercialization of Mother's Day. Originally conceived as a personal celebration amongst ones family, Anna's vision of Mother's Day involved the wearing of a white carnation and spending it honoring ones mother. Once it became a national holiday, though, it was not long before merchants of all kinds capitalized on its popularity. Anna outwardly denounced the commercialization. and urged people to stop buying flowers, cards and candy. She also took "profiteers" to court in a string of lawsuits, spending all of her personal wealth on legal fees. By the time of her passing in 1948, she had disowned the holiday, and actively worked to have it removed from the calendar. She died penniless, spending the final years of her life in a sanitarium.

 Other Notable Mother's Day Founders

While Anna Jarvis is widely credited with bringing the modern form of Mother's Day to the world, there were certainly other notable pioneers. 

Julia Ward Howe, writer of Battle Hymn of the Republic, started a "Mother's Peace Day," on which mothers supported antiwar efforts. 

Mary Towels Sasseen, is also credited with starting a day to honor mothers, as far back as 1887. This 24-year-old school principal curated a book of songs, poems, and readings for schools that wanted to organize tributes to mothers.

In 1904, Frank Herin, a football coach and Notre Dame faculty member required students to write a note to their mothers once a month. 

Still, none of these championed the cause in quite the same way as Anna. Though she disowned the holiday in the end, she still retains the bulk of the credit for spreading it across the United States. 

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