A History of Mother’s Day

(Last Updated On: June 1, 2018)

Mother’s Day

Gifts, Cards, and Flowers

How do you celebrate Mother’s Day? If you’re like most, you’ll probably get your mom some combination of gifts, cards, and flowers. You might even plan a nice activity, attend brunch, or just give your mom a much needed break.

People have been celebrating mothers and motherhood for a long time, all the way back to ancient Greek and Roman festivals honoring the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. Over time, different holidays and observances have helped shape the current rendition of Mother’s Day.

However you celebrate, Mother’s Day has become a time to honor and appreciate your mom. While we generally think of it as a happy celebration, you might be surprised to learn that Mother’s Day has not always been so well-received by everyone.

Early European Origins

Modern Mother’s Day celebrations seem to have their origins in an early Christian festival known as Mothering Sunday. Observed on the fourth Sunday of Lent, it was once a major tradition in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe. On Mothering Sunday, people would to return to their ‘mother church’, or the closest church to their home, and attend a special service.

Eventually, Mothering Sunday lost some of it’s religious flavor and became a more secular holiday. It became a day for kids to give their moms flowers or other small gifts. The tradition gradually lost its popularity in Europe though, and wouldn’t make a comeback until it merged with the American Mother’s Day in the mid-20th century.

Celebrating Mom in the US

Mother’s Day celebrations in the United States date back to the 1850s. A West Virginia women’s organizer named Ann Reeves Jarvis held Mothers’ Day work clubs to teach women how to better care for their children. After the Civil War, Jarvis and others organized Mothers’ Friendship Day picnics to help unite former enemies. Union and Confederate soldiers were invited to the events along with their mothers.

Other people would organize various mother celebrations throughout the latter part of the century. However, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the holiday really started to become what it is today.

Anna Jarvis and Mother’s Day

Anna Jarvis, the daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis, wanted to continue the work of her mother after she passed away. She hoped to create a holiday that would honor the sacrifices mothers made for their children. In May, 1908, after gaining financial backing from a Philadelphia department store owner named John Wanamaker, Jarvis organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a church in West Virginia. Wanamaker also held an event on that day at one of his retail stores in Philadelphia.

The events were a huge success, and Jarvis wanted this celebration to grow. She wrote letter after letter to various newspapers and prominent politicians. She urged them to adopt a special day honoring motherhood and argued that American holidays were too biased towards the achievements of men.

Her persistence paid off. By 1912, many states and towns had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day Goes Corporate

At it’s heart, Mother’s Day was meant to be a personal celebration between mothers and their families. Jarvis had envisioned it as a holiday about love and compassion, where kids might attend church with their moms or do other simple gestures of kindness. It wasn’t long, however, before people found opportunities to profit from the holiday.

As Mother’s Day became more and more popular, florists, card shops, and other companies began to try and capitalize. By the 1920s, Jarvis had become outraged with how the holiday had been commercialized. She spoke out against the holiday, and urged people to stop buying flowers and cards.

She didn’t stop there. Jarvis felt that ‘profit’ had no place in Mother’s Day. She began an open campaign against Mother’s Day, even launching lawsuits against groups that had used the name “Mother’s Day.” She lobbied the government to remove the holiday from the American calendar. By the time she died in 1948, Jarvis was penniless from spending money on legal fees and had disowned the holiday altogether.

Mother’s Day Today

Obviously, the efforts of Jarvis to squash the holiday she created did not work. Mother’s Day remains one of the most prominent dates for people to dine out. It is also one of the most popular holidays for giving gifts and buying cards. Today, people all over the world celebrate Mother’s Day in some fashion, and it lives on as a major consumer holiday in the US.

While Jarvis may not have been pleased with how her holiday turned out, the original meaning of the holiday has not been lost for everyone. At the heart of many Mother’s Day traditions are themes of respect, compassion, and love. It’s always important remember the real reason why we celebrate the day.

Now go call your mom!

About the Author:

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Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.