An unknown history of Mother's Day

history mothers mothers day mothersday women womens rights

Everyone is born from a mother, so it's not surprising that there are different ways of honoring and celebrating moms throughout the world. Mother's Day is a time to appreciate and honor the legacies, personal and societal, of our mothers and grandmothers.

Historically, mothers have had a key role in building and maintaining connections across generations. Even today, they are most often the history keepers in families and take the lead in passing down family stories, life lessons, and traditions.

 Some people may believe Mother's Day was developed as a commercial holiday by stationary companies to sell cards, candy, and flowers.

The history of the day has its roots in honoring the broader networks, social ties, and political concerns of women. The day is about women's commitment to the past, present, and future at both the personal and political levels. It honors women who have acted not only on behalf of their own children but also on behalf of future generations.


Early Celebrations

Mother's Day isn't a new holiday. The earliest Mother's Day celebrations can be traced back to the spring celebrations of ancient Greece in honor of Rhea and Cybelle. People would make offerings of honey-cakes, fine drinks, and flowers at dawn.
The Romans also had a mother of all gods, Magna Mater, or Great Mother. A temple was built in Rome for her. In March of every year, there was a celebration in her honor called the Festival of Hilaria. Gifts were brought to the temple to please the powerful mother-goddess.
During the 1600s, England celebrated "Mothering Sunday" on the fourth Sunday of Lent as a way to honor the mothers of England. Many of England's poor lived and worked as servants for the wealthy, far away from their homes and families. On Mothering Sunday, servants were given the day off to return home and spend the day with their mothers. A special cake, called the "mothering cake," was often baked to add to the festivities.

Julia Ward Howe

The story of modern Mother's Day begins in the peace movement and as a day recognizing women's social action.

In the United States, Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), a Boston writer, pacifist, suffragist, and author of the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, first suggested a Mothers' Day in 1872. She saw it as a day dedicated to peace.

Howe was greatly distressed to see Europe plunged into the Franco-Prussian War.  For several years she worked toward the recognition of a "Mothers' Day for Peace" on June 2. She organized meetings in Boston, MA as a rally for women, whom she believed bore the loss of human life more harshly than anyone else.
Although her version of Mothers' Day never really caught on, Howe went on to head the American branch of the Woman's International Peace Association, which observed a day dedicated to peace.


Anna Jarvis and Her Mother

The official observance of Mother's Day in its present form is credited to Anna Jarvis (1864-1948) of Philadelphia, PA. She wanted to honor the memory of her mother, Mrs. Ann Jarvis, who died in 1905.  According to historical records provided by the curator at the Anna Jarvis Birthplace Museum near Grafton, WV, Anna Jarvis' mother was not, as is popularly believed, also named Anna.

Mrs. Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis (sometimes referred to as "Mother Jarvis" to distinguish her from her daughter Anna) organized several "Mothers Day Work Clubs" in the 1850s in the West Virginia area.Mrs. Jarvis lost eight children under the age of seven (she gave birth to a total of twelve children), and wanted to combat the poor health and sanitation conditions that existed in many areas and contributed to the high mortality rate of children. The social action brigades provided medicine for the poor, nursing care for the sick, and arranged help and proper medical care for tuberculosis patients.

Mrs. Jarvis' service to her community was not lost on her daughter, Anna. When her mother passed away, Anna was at her graveside and recalled something her mother often said:
I hope that someone, sometime, will found a Memorial Mothers Day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.

Up until her own death, Anna continually referred to her mother as the real originator of Mother's Day, despite the fact that it was Anna herself who worked tirelessly over several years to make it a national reality.

It began in 1907 when Anna had a small gathering of friends in her home to commemorate her mother's life. She announced the idea of a national day to honor mothers. In 1908, Anna persuaded her mother's church in Grafton, West Virginia to celebrate Mother's Day on the anniversary of her mother's death, the second Sunday of May. It was to be a day to honor all mothers, and also a day to remember the work of peacemaking, reconciliation, and social action against poverty started by her mother. That same year, Mother's Day was also celebrated in Philadelphia.

The role of women was changing rapidly during this period. During the first two decades of the 1900s (often referred to as the Progressive Era), women were entering into community building and political activities. Like other women of the time, Anna did not denigrate the role of mother, wife, and homemaker, but expanded the role into the public arena. Women saw government as being "enlarged housekeeping" and used their skills to help improve it. The definition of motherhood at the time gave women a moral responsibility outside their immediate home. Women who participated in civil rights and welfare reform saw this work as essentially maternal in nature. Women worked to ease social ills; they became scholars and scientists; they fought for the rights of various groups of people; and they raised their voices to have the right to vote. Many of these reformers were mothers as well as activists, but their contributions as mothers were often overlooked. The creation of Mother's Day as a national holiday was to restore the status of mother as a cornerstone of the family and of the nation.

Anna and her supporters tirelessly wrote to ministers, business people, and politicians in their quest to establish a national Mother's Day to honor all mothers. By 1911, Mother's Day was celebrated in almost every state. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made it official: Mother's Day would be a national holiday held each year on the second Sunday in May. He stated that mothers were "the greatest source of the country's strength and inspiration." He ordered the United States flag displayed on all public buildings to honor mothers. Unfortunately, many officials of the time turned the intent of the holiday away from women's activism and instead emphasized women's role in the home and family. The apostrophe was moved so that "Mothers' Day" as a day for organized social and political action by all mothers became "Mother's Day" a day for celebrating the private service of one's own particular mother.

Anna went on to incorporate herself as the Mother's Day International Association and turned her attention to persuading other nations to celebrate Mother's Day. Eventually, Mother's Day would be observed in over fifty countries.

Unfortunately, the story of Anna Jarvis has a bittersweet ending. At first, people observed Mother's Day by attending church, writing letters to their mothers, and spending time together. As the years passed though, more people began buying cards, presents, and flowers. Anna felt that Mother's Day became much too commercialized.


Mother's Day Throughout the World

Today, Mother's Day is celebrated (officially and unofficially) in dozens of countries, although on different dates. In the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Turkey, Australia, Belgium, and Japan it is celebrated on the second Sunday of May.

In Great Britain, Mothering Sunday falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent. But Mother's Day is now observed in England as it is in North America, and the traditions associated with Mothering Sunday have been largely forgotten.

In Mexico, Mother's Day is always celebrated on May 10. When the holiday falls on a weekday, mothers take the day off from work and children stay home from school. Other countries that celebrate Mother's Day on May 10 include Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates.

In Spain and Portugal, Mother's Day is celebrated on December 8, which is also the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Mothers are honored along with the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Other dates for Mother's Day celebrations: Norway – second Sunday in February; France – last Sunday in May; Sweden – last Sunday in May; South Africa – first Sunday in May.