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The History of Mother’s Day

April 29, 2023

Anna Jarvis, founder of Mother's Day

By Guy Scott

Mother’s Day is one of the largest card-buying holidays in North America, but the origins of Mother’s Day have nothing to do with buying expensive gifts, flowers and cards. The roots of celebrating a mother figure can be traced back to the times of Ancient Greece. The Greeks held a festival to honour Rhea, the Mother of all the Greek Gods. The Romans and other early civilizations had similar celebrations for their own gods.

In the 17th century, there was a special day in England, known as Mothering Sunday. It was celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent to honour one’s mother. It came about because many common women spent most of their time working in the households of England’s higher class. Any servant who was a mother could take the day off (how noble of those noble English) and spend it with their own mothers, most of whom needed taking care of. The honoured mothers were given a celebratory fruit cake or pastry for the event.

Years later the celebrations of one’s mother changed to incorporate the church as a symbol of ‘motherhood’ because of its spiritual nurturing. This eventually switched back to the original idea of mothers as in people, not religious institutes.

The idea of Mother’s Day in the United States goes back to the Civil War. It was suggested by a woman named Julia Ward Howe during that time. Yes, she is the same one who penned the words to Battle Hymn of the Republic. Howe’s idea for Mother’s Day came about as an idea to promote peace after witnessing the bloodshed of the Civil War. In 1870, during the international peace conference held in London and Paris, she presented her manifesto. By 1872, Howe began promoting Mother’s Day for Peace, which would be held on June 2. The idea of the special day was to celebrate peace, the ideals of being a woman, and motherhood. Her idea lasted for a few years, and was even celebrated, but eventually fell to the wayside as the Civil War grew further into the past.

It wasn’t until 1907 that a woman by the name of Anna Jarvis got the ball rolling on turning Mother’s Day into a national holiday. Anna Jarvis wanted to celebrate her own mother so she convinced her mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia, to set aside a special day to honour all mothers. It was called Mother’s Day and was set on the second Sunday in May, which was the anniversary of the death of Jarvis’ mother. The celebration was held and by the following year, Mother’s Day was also celebrated in Philadelphia where Anna Jarvis lived. Mother’s Day was a popular idea and supporters of the holiday spoke with politicians and lawmakers about making it a national holiday. By the time President Woodrow Wilson made Mother’s Day official in 1914, it was already being celebrated in every state as well as in Canada.

At first people observed Mother’s Day by attending church, writing letters to their mothers, and eventually, by sending cards, presents and flowers. With the increasing gift giving activity associated with Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis became enraged. She believed that the day’s sentiment was being sacrificed at the expense of greed and profit. In 1923 she filed a lawsuit to stop a Mother’s Day Festival, and was even arrested for disturbing the peace at a convention selling carnations for a war mother’s group. Before her death in 1948, Jarvis is said to have confessed that she regretted ever starting the Mother’s Day tradition.

Despite Jarvis’ misgivings, Mother’s Day has flourished. In fact, the Second Sunday of May has become the most popular day of the year to dine out, and telephone lines record their highest traffic, as sons and daughters everywhere take advantage of this day to honour and to express appreciation to their mothers.

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