Mother’s Day is an annual holiday honoring motherhood and the special role that mothers play. But Mother’s Day, unlike specific American holidays such as Thanksgiving, is not unique to the U.S. In many countries, religious or cultural holidays revolving around women and families have transformed into unique celebrations of motherhood. In other countries, the Hallmark-card-giving American holiday has simply been imported. Still, the holiday is something of a mix in many other areas.
Anna Jarvis created the American incarnation of the holiday to honor her late mother and the sacrifices of all mothers. While celebrations around the country vary with families and traditions, the holiday usually involves presenting mothers with flowers, cards, and other gifts. In some instances, children, grandchildren, and husbands have chosen to honor the mothers in their lives with more unique gifts such as a Mother’s Day book.
While we take the second Sunday in May every year to honor our mothers and grandmothers, the holiday hasn’t always been a part of the calendar of celebrations. Let’s take a closer look at the tradition of Mother’s Day.
History of Honoring Mothers
Celebrations of mothers and motherhood can be traced back to the ancient Romans and Greeks who arranged festivals in honor of the mother goddesses Cybele and Rhea. A more modern precedent for the holiday can be seen in the early Christian festival known as “Mothering Sunday.” This was once a major tradition around Europe and in the United Kingdom and was celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent when the faithful would return to their “mother church” for a special service.
Eventually, “Mothering Sunday” turned into a more secular tradition that involved children presenting their mothers with flowers, gifts, and other tokens of appreciation. The custom eventually faded before it merged with the American Mother’s Day tradition in the 1930s and ’40s.
Ann Reeves Jarvis
The origins of the American holiday honoring mothers can be traced back to the 19th century before the start of the Civil War. In West Virginia, Anna Reeves Jarvis started “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to help local women learn how to be good mothers and properly care for young children. The clubs became a unifying force in an area of the country still torn by the Civil War. By 1968, Jarvis began organizing “Mother’s Friendship Day,” when mothers met with former Union and Confederate soldiers to promote peace and reconciliation.
Julia Ward Howe
Another precursor to the holiday originated with an abolitionist woman and suffragette named Julia Ward Howe. In 1870, Howe authored a proclamation calling for action on the part of all mothers. Her idea was to unite all mothers in a day to proclaim world peace. In 1973, Howe campaigned for “Mother’s Peace Day” to be celebrated on the second day of June each year.
The official holiday honoring mothers that we celebrate today came about in the early 1900s as a result of the efforts of Anna Jarvis. Anna was the daughter of Anna Reeves Jarvis and conceived the holiday after her mother’s death in 1905 as a way to honor the sacrifices mothers made for their children. After collaborating with a Philadelphia department store owner named John Wanamaker, Anna organized the first official holiday celebration in May 1908.
The celebration at Jarvis’ Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia, and one of the retail stores owned by Wanamaker saw thousands of people attend. Following the success of the first holiday, Jarvis started a massive writing campaign to newspapers and politicians urging the adoption of the special day. By 1912, many states, towns, and churches had adopted the day as an annual holiday. Jarvis had also created the Mother’s Day International Association to help promote the holiday. In 1914, President Wilson signed an official proclamation establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.