Commemorated with flowers, brunch, greeting cards, and shiny baubles, one event struggled throughout the ages to become an official holiday, now celebrated on the second Sunday in May: Mother’s Day. Its evolution was a long and quirky process, starting with ancient Greeks hosting lavish festivals in honor of mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. The history of celebrating mothers has taken a convoluted path, with humans, gods, and creatures that would take a master of mythology to unravel.
The Greek influence spilled over into the rest of Europe, prompting other precursors to modern day celebrations, including what the British Empire called “Mothering Sunday.” This tribute occurred on the fourth Sunday of Lent, when the straying faithful would return to the church of their childhood for a special service. Children would present tokens of appreciation and handpicked flowers to their moms. Quaint, as far as holidays go, yet it petered out at the turn of the 19th century.
Mothers Working for Peace
Feeling victorious in the summer of 1865, Jarvis organized a Mothers’ Friendship Day at the courthouse in Pruntytown, Pennsylvania, to bring together soldiers and neighbors of all political beliefs. The event surpassed expectations, and despite the fear that it would erupt in violence, it was a resounding success. No bloodshed. No tears. No drama, and eventually it became an annual event in Pennsylvania.
Julia Ward Howe, the anti-war activist who penned the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” began promoting Mother’s Peace Day in 1872. As with Jarvis, the goal was unity after the horrors of the war, and the movement asked that people gather, pray, and listen to lectures in churches or social halls. But what began as a celebration to promote global peace in the late 1800s made a hairpin turn upon the death of Ann Marie Jarvis in 1905.
Ruined by Commercialism?
Daughter of Ann Marie Jarvis, Anna Jarvis, took up the weighty community service mantle stitched by her mother and vowed to make her own incarnation of Mother’s Day a national holiday.
In May of 1908, her first Mother’s Day was financially backed by a Pennsylvania department store owner. Billed as a day to honor the sacrifices a mother makes for her children, it was a resounding success that drew thousands of celebrants. Buoyed from success, Jarvis went for the all-important calendar addition and began a letter writing campaign that involved every state. Persistence paid off, and President Woodrow Wilson deemed it an official national holiday – the second Sunday of each May – in 1914. And then Anna Jarvis spent the rest of her life, her savings, and finally her sanity in trying to remove Mother’s Day from the calendar.
As is the American way, the greeting card suppliers, florists, and other merchants seized on an opportunity to make a buck. And Jarvis’ holiday became, in her eyes, a spectacle. In the 1920s she lashed out, threatening to end the day entirely:
“To have Mother’s Day the burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift day that Christmas and other special days have become, is not our pleasure. If the American people are not willing to protect Mother’s Day from the hordes of money schemers that would overwhelm it with their schemes, then we shall cease having a Mother’s Day—and we know how.”
But that ship had already set sail towards a large profit margin, and all sorts of tagalongs began coming out of the woodwork to capitalize on the latest holiday.
Still, it was rumored that Jarvis only lived to be recognized for the holiday by always scribing “Founder of Mother’s Day” after her signature.
Mother’s Day American Style
Mother’s Day is a $25 billion one-day industry. About 122 million phone calls are made. On average, nearly $200 is forked over by each child to celebrate his or her mom. But let’s face it: Commercialization of this holiday has made sure we all take a moment to ponder the sacrifices our own mothers have made.