The History of Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in May each year.

Festivals honoring mothers in ancient times were often tied to gods and goddesses. The Phrygians held a festival for Cybele, the Great Mother of the Gods. The Greeks and Romans also honored the mother figure of their gods. Even today, an important festival in India, Durga-puja, honors the goddess Durga.

During the Middle Ages, people would return to their home or “mother” church once a year during the middle of Lent. (Back then, children would often leave to work at the tender age of 10!) Historians theorize that it was the return to the “mother” church that led to the tradition of children getting the day off to visit their mother and family.

In 16th-century England, this celebration became “Mothering Sunday.” Children—mainly daughters who had gone to work as domestic servants—would be given the day off on the fourth Sunday of Lent to return to their mothers and home parish. The eldest son or daughter would bring a “mothering cake,” which would be cut and shared by the entire family. Family reunions were the order of the day, with sons and daughters assuming all household duties and preparing a special dinner in honor of their mother. Sometime during the day, the mother would attend special church services with her family.

Mothering Sunday was also known as Refreshment Sunday; the fasting rules were relaxed for that day. (Often, the gospel for the day was about Jesus feeding the crowd with loaves of bread.) The traditional cake, called a Simnel cake, is a fruit cake with two layers of almond paste. The cake was made with 11 balls of marzipan icing on top, representing the 11 disciples. (Judas is not included.) Traditionally, sugar violets would also be added.

The Mother’s Day holiday in the United States wasn’t born out a desire to simply treat mothers to a day off or to buy them gifts! It essentially began as a women’s movement to better the lives of other Americans.

Three women were most instrumental in establishing the tradition of Mother’s Day in the United States: Ann Reeves Jarvis, Julia Ward Howe, and Ann’s daughter, Anna M. Jarvis. Learn more about these three great women who fought for children’s welfare, health and peace.

ANN REEVES JARVIS

Known as “Mother Jarvis,” Ann Reeves Jarvis was a young Appalachian homemaker who taught Sunday school lessons. She also was a lifelong activist who, in the mid-1800s, had organized “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” in West Virginia to combat unsanitary living conditions and teach young mothers how to safely care for their children. During the Civil War, Mother Jarvis had also organized women’s brigades, encouraging women to help without regard for which side their men had chosen. After the war, she proposed a Mothers’ Friendship Day to promote peace between former Union and Confederate families. “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,” Ann Jarvis once said. “She is entitled to it.”

JULIA WARD HOWE

Julia Ward Howe was a famous poet and reformer. During the Civil War, she volunteered for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, helping them to provide hygienic environments for hospitals and ensure sanitary conditions during the care of sick and wounded soldiers. In 1861, she authored the famous Civil War anthem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was first published in February 1862.

Around 1870, Julia Ward Howe called for a “Mother’s Day for Peace” dedicated to the celebration of peace and the eradication of war. As expressed in what is called her “Mother’s Day Proclamation” from 1870, Howe felt that mothers should gather to prevent the cruelty of war and the waste of life since mothers of mankind alone bear and know the cost.

Howe’s version of Mother’s Day was held in Boston and other locations for about 30 years, but died a quick death in the years preceding World War I.

Nothing new happened in this department until 1907, when a Miss Anna M. Jarvis, of Philadelphia, took up the banner.

ANNA M. JARVIS

After her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, died in 1905, Miss Anna Jarvis from Philadelphia wished to memorialize her life and started campaigning for a national day to honor all mothers. She bombarded public figures and various civic organizations with telegrams, letters, and in-person discussions. She addressed groups large and small. At her own expense, she wrote, printed, and distributed booklets extolling her idea.

In May of 1907, Anna memorialized her mother’s lifelong activism with a memorial service held at the Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where Anna’s mother had taught. The following year, on May 10, a Mother’s Day service was held at that same church to acknowledge all mothers. Thus was born the idea that the second Sunday in May be set aside to honor every mother, whether living or deceased.

Her efforts came to the attention of the mayor of Philadelphia, who proclaimed a local Mother’s Day. From the local level she went on to Washington, D.C. The politicians there knew a good thing when they saw it and were quick to lend verbal support.

While West Virginia was the first state to officially adopt the holiday, others followed suit. Proclamation of the day by the various states led Representative J. Thomas Heflin of Alabama and Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas to present a joint resolution to Congress that Mother’s Day be observed nationwide. The resolution was passed by both houses.

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill designating the second Sunday in May as a legal holiday to be called “Mother’s Day”—dedicated “to the best mother in the world, your mother.” For the first few years, the day was observed as a legal holiday, but in absolute simplicity and reverence—church services were held in honor of all mothers, living and dead.

According to many sources, Ann simply wanted to honor her mother and the work she had done, and claimed that her mother was the originator of the real Mother’s Day. She was dismayed to see Mother’s Day become more commercialized with the sending of cards and gifts and used as a way to promote other causes. Sadly, Anna spent the final years of her life trying to abolish the very holiday that she had helped to establish!

MOTHER’S DAY TODAY

Mother’s Day endures and evolves. Just as Mother’s Day was the creation of multiple women, the modern Mother’s Day celebrates the varied roles of mothers today. We commemorate the many ways mothers have fought to better the lives of their children, from social welfare to non-violence. We also honor the way mothers have raised and nurtured their children with love and courage.

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