In the United States of America, we celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in the month of May. Some version of this holiday is celebrated in many cultures throughout the world. And while it wasn’t officially recognized as an official national holiday in America until 1914, honoring and revering mothers and mother figures has been a tradition in the world since the early days of civilization.
The Greeks and Romans celebrated mother goddesses with festivals. Tribes in Africa have feasts and sing songs. In Christianity’s history, there was a day called the “Mothering Sunday.” This was celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent when those participating would return to the “mother church” nearest their home.
How did Mother’s Day end up being one of the holidays with the highest retail sales? How did we get to our current celebrations of boxes of chocolates, flowers, cards and expensive gifts? It seems like it’s a long road from ancient mothering celebrations.
In the 1850’s, Ann Jarvis actively worked to organize Mother’s Day Work Clubs to work towards combating infant mortality, care for soldiers injured in war and attempt to improve sanitary conditions. This was a cause near to Ann Jarvis, as she suffered the loss of nine of her thirteen children before adulthood.
Meanwhile, Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist and activist, advocated in 1870 that mother’s unite to encourage world peace. In 1870, she wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation” and in 1873, she lobbied to have “Mother’s Peace Day” observed annual on June 2nd.
Ann’s daughter, Anna Jarvis, picked up the torch after her mother’s death in the early 20th century. She felt that her mother, who had worked tirelessly to benefit others should be honored, as should all mothers. Anna began her campaign to make Mother’s Day a tradition, and ultimately a national holiday. She even enlisted the aid of a Philadelphia department store owner to help get the first meetings going in 1904. Each following year, many cities and states joined in the celebrations. Anna worked to convince the American leaders of the importance of Mother’s Day as a National Holiday. In a massive letter writing campaign, she demonstrated that National Holidays were skewed towards male achievements. In 1914, her petition was granted and President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day a national holiday.
All of that still sounds pretty mild compared to the commercialism we see today. In just over 100 years, Mother’s Day has definitely expanded.
Actually, it only took 6 years for Mother’s Day to grow into a commercialized monster, and Anna Jarvis was disgusted by it. By 1920, she saw what her beautiful memorial to her own mother had become and she sought to strike it down. Seeing as it’s 2018 and we’ve spent the last few days frantically running around to get just the right gift so our mothers can appropriately quantify our love, we can assume Anna Jarvis failed to quell the chaos, despite spending most of her personal wealth on legal fees to sue groups which used “Mother’s Day” in their promotions. In 1948, she severed her own personal connection to the holiday and lobbied the government to have the holiday removed from the national calendar.
A 1923 article in the New York Times quotes Anna Jarvis as saying she resented the day she intended to honor her mother became a “means of profiteering,”
As I read that phrase, “means of profiteering”, I think about what it meant to Anna Jarvis in 1923 and what it might mean now in the age of social media. Anna Jarvis wanted this to be a personal celebration within families. Families would wear white carnations to show their love and support for their mothers. They didn’t need to give her a present. They just needed to let their mother’s know they remember the sacrifices she made. They needed to express their gratitude to her, and not in a way that makes you seem more grateful that others, and thus a better child. They didn’t need to take her on an expensive vacation or buy her pricy jewelry. They just needed to give her an extra squeeze or say a kind word.
I’ll admit that I have a different view of Mother’s Day than most and find that as I’ve done this research, I feel Anna Jarvis might be a kindred spirit. Growing up, my own mother had pretty strong feelings about Mother’s Day. She told me that we shouldn’t need to have a single day set aside to be grateful to and for our mothers. She said it would mean infinitely more if people could be grateful everyday. People should always have respect for their mothers and treat them with said respect. Wouldn’t it be great if someone took some of the load off of their shoulders on a random Tuesday rather than only on the second Sunday in May?
Does that mean we didn’t or don’t celebrate Mother’s Day in our family? No. We still celebrate. We have dinner. We do what is “socially acceptable” and give gifts. I think my mom most appreciates on that day that all of her children are healthy, happy and functional human beings. I think it makes her pleased to see that we all get along (most of the time) and respect each other. I think watching us take the skills she has instilled in us and go out into the world to work for our dreams and try to bring a positive light to those we meet, those are the gifts we give her throughout the year that mean so much more.
Ann Jarvis’ observance of Mother’s Day was to care for others. Julia Ward Howe wanted to actively spread peace throughout the world. Anna Jarvis wanted to show her mom how much she loved and admired her. None of these women wanted expensive presents or lengthy epistles dedicated to them on social media. They wanted to spread goodness. They wanted to share a feeling of hope. They wanted to work toward a better tomorrow for everyone, not just for themselves. What if this was how we observed Mother’s Day now? How much good could be done throughout the world if we all focused on these goals?
I know this might not be a popular opinion and many of you might object to what I’ve presented. But I don’t think that makes the intentions of these historic women less noble. I hope that as we celebrate our mothers and the women in our lives today and EVERYDAY, we can focus on spreading the goodness and hope that the women in our lives have planted in us.
For more information about the History of Mother’s Day, go to the following pages…
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