The History of Mother’s Day

Year after year, we collectively celebrate the Moms of the world on one extraordinary day. You guessed it – we’re talking about Mother’s Day (as if the title didn’t give it away). 

But have you ever wondered how exactly this marvelous day of mothers came to be?

When did it start?

Who started it?

What made it stick? 

Well, what are we waiting for!

Now, this story is not for the faint of heart, so brace yourselves and try to keep up…

The Beginnings

We’re going all the way back to the spring celebrations of ancient Greece in honor of Rhea, the mother of the gods. Honey-cakes, fine drinks, and flowers at dawn were made as offerings to her majesty. Sounds a bit familiar, right? 

The Romans had a mother of gods as well, Magna Mater, or ‘Great Mother.’ A Roman temple was built in her honor, in which every March, a celebration was held. This festival, the Festival of Hilaria, was one of abundant gifts that were brought to please the the Great Mother. 

17th century England brought “Mothering Sunday” on the fourth Sunday of Lent as a way of honoring the mothers of England. All servants were sent home to their families, and a special cake called the “mothering cake” was often baked. 

A Shift in the Wind

As we step into modern-day Mother’s Day traditions, we will see that its origins may not be quite what we expected.

Why’s that you ask?

Well, Mother’s Day actually begins in the peace movement as a day recognizing the social action of women.

Julia Ward Howe

In the United States, Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), first suggested a Mother’s Day in 1872. As a writer, pacifist, suffragist, and author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic (a pro-Union, anti-slavery anthem), she saw it as a day to be dedicated to peace. 

Howe worked fiercely toward her goal for several years. Organizing meetings, rallies for women, while targeting war mothers, and women who support husbands and sons at war. She petitioned,

“Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone bear and know the cost?” 

Howe’s vision never truly caught on; she still, however, went on to lead the American branch of the Woman’s International Peace Association, which did observe a day dedicated to peace. 

Mrs. Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis

Anna Jarvis is often remembered as the “mother” of Mother’s Day, as she was the mastermind behind the movement that set this beloved holiday into action.

However, Jarvis’ mother actually played a huge role in what we like to call ‘Momma’s Movement.’ According to Time Magazine, as Jarvis spread the word, she was always brought back to a moment with her mother in 1876. She heard her mother recite the following prayer after teaching a Sunday School lesson:

“I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life.”

After the death of her mother in 1905, Jarvis vowed to fulfill that dream.

Anna’s mother, Mrs. Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, organized many “Mothers Day Work Clubs” throughout the 1850s, all of which eventually went by the name “Mothers Friendship Clubs.”

These clubs were born of her desire to combat the poor health and sanitation conditions that existed in many areas, contributing to the high mortality rate of children.

Mrs. Jarvis herself lost eight of her twelve children under the age of seven. Her “Mothers Friendship Clubs” provided care and medicine for the ill, and aided in the arrangement of proper medical care for victims of tuberculosis.

Enter the Civil War

At the start of the Civil War, Mrs. Jarvis gathered her clubs together, asking them to make a vow that friendship and goodwill would not be a victim of the war.

The clubs formed an alliance of warrior women to nurse US soldiers from both sides, saving the lives of many.

After the war, Mrs. Jarvis continued her efforts of peacemaking and breaking down polarization caused by the war.

In 1868, Mrs. Jarvis organized “Mothers Friendship Day” to further aid in bringing families together after the war, and to:

“revive the dormant filial love and gratitude we owe to those who gave us birth.”Mrs. Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis

Her efforts seem to have stuck, as this was the first of several other Mothers Friendship Days.

Anna Jarvis Fulfills Her Mother's Dream

Beginning in 1907, with the rapid changes of the woman’s role, Anna continued her mother’s efforts, working to ease social illness and participating in civil rights and welfare reform, raising their voices and demanding to be heard. 

Anna’s creation of Mother’s Day as a national holiday was initially to restore the status of the mother as a cornerstone of both the family and the nation. 

All of Anna’s hard work: writing to ministers, business owners, and politicians paid off when in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made it official: Mother’s Day would now be a national holiday held each year on the second Sunday of May. Wilson stated that mothers were, 

“the greatest source of the country’s strength and inspiration.” 

However, unfortunately, many officials changed the intent of the holiday from a celebration of women’s activism to emphasize the woman’s role in the home. 

Nevertheless, Anna continued to spread the word until Mother’s Day was observed in all 50 states. 

Ever wonder why your grandma just loves carnations

Yup, you can thank Anna for that one too. She began the custom of wearing a carnation on Mother’s Day: 

  • Colored if your mother is living 
  • White if she is not

This became a symbol of love and respect for the woman who loved you more than all the rest (no matter how much trouble you caused her). 

An Unfortunate End

While everything went (for the most part) according to plan, as years passed, more people began purchasing cards, gifts, and flowers instead of spending quality time with their mothers as Anna had intended.

The holiday became superficial and commercialized; even the price of carnations began to inflate as a result of the holiday.
Anna went as far as filing a lawsuit to put a stop to Mother’s Day altogether in 1923 and was arrested for wreaking havoc at a Mother’s Day festival.

Years later, Anna reported that she regretted ever starting the holiday.

The Comeback

Despite Anna’s disappointment, modern-day Mother’s Day as we have come to know it, in all of its gift-giving glory, the consumerism attached to the holiday has actually come to serve as quite a positive aspect. 

Those who may live far from Mom and are unable to travel frequently, as well as those who may want to treat their Mom to a relaxing spa day, are now able to show their love in other forms. 

Gifting gives us a way to creatively express love and appreciation for all of the Moms in our lives. 

We can get creative and give her something we know she will absolutely love. 

The gifting of flowers or plants, for example, once condemned by Anna Jarvis, has now become a way to brighten Mom’s day (and her kitchen).

So, if you can’t be with her, your heartfelt gift will serve as a reminder of your love for her every time she sees it. 

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