Mother’s Day: The History Behind the Holiday

Mother’s Day: The History Behind the Holiday
Image from Pixabay

By Faye Roland

Mothers of the 21st Century, let’s talk about Mother’s Day. Let’s put to rest the controversy that pops up annually and attempts to “throw shade” on this most sacred and auspicious springtime celebration. As a mom, a daughter, a grandma, and a great-grandmother-to-be (in September), I feel abundantly qualified to explore, examine, and illuminate the origins and significance of this blessed holiday. Before we eat our breakfast in bed, open that first box of candy, or trim those flowers and place them in a vase, come along with me (at a safe distance of six feet) and let’s restore to this day the respect it deserves. 

Where Did Mother’s Day Come From?

Contrary to the opinions of many skeptics, Mother’s Day was not invented by greeting card manufacturers, florists, or Russell Stover. Although these businesses do make a “motherload” of money in early May of each year, this is a carefully crafted by-product, and definitely not the motivation, for the holiday’s inception.

My sources tell me that it all began in 1905, when Anna Jarvis’s mom passed away in Grafton, West Virginia. After three unexplained years of planning, Anna held a public memorial for her mom at their local Methodist church, and the rest is history (herstory, actually). Anna writes in her aptly titled essay, “How I Started Mother’s Day,” that, “… the most potent reason for the inauguration of such a day was parental love,” but patriotism was also a factor. She believed that, “Good mothers are not only the greatest blessing that men and women can possess, but they are also the greatest blessing to the Nation.” 

Anna Jarvis’ birthplace in Grafton, WV. Image from user Jimmy Emerson, DVM on Flickr

Before there was a 19th Amendment or Women’s Marches, before talk went from satin bonnets and glass slippers to pink knit hats and glass ceilings, Anna Jarvis had her sights set on increasing recognition and respect for women, and for mothers in particular. “Though individuals have attributed their happiness and their success in life to their mother’s influence, no country has publicly dedicated a day to its mothers,” she wrote. Her effort had none of the status or financial backing that other “religious and patriotic holidays” enjoyed, adding that, “It was developed only through the hardest work.”  

Portrait of Anna Jarvis, creator of Mother's Day
Anna Jarvis, image from The American Florist, a weekly journal for the trade, 1885.

Jarvis oversaw the establishment of The Mother’s Day International Association, which in turn adopted an official “honor badge” to be worn on the holiday. This, she explained, was in case there was a shortage of white carnations, which she designated as the official flowers of Mother’s Day because of their “sweet, wholesome fragrance and white purity.” Ever the frugal feminist, she also commended their low cost and durability and, in an attempt to be inclusive, she added that the carnation “could be worn by men and women alike.” 

When Did it Become so Commercialized?

In 1914, six years after Jarvis began her campaign, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation setting aside the second Sunday in May as a day to honor mothers. However, the satisfaction this must have brought Jarvis was eventually deeply overshadowed by the commercialism that sprung up around the holiday. Allegedly, she spent her later years denouncing the profit-making trend in dramatic (often illegal) ways, even going door-to-door in her Philadelphia neighborhood to collect signatures on a petition to rescind the national holiday.

She died in 1948 in a Pennsylvania sanitarium, evidently driven mad by her conviction that, “A maudlin, insincere printed card… means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world.” Some of her final words might bring peace to those of us who, housebound this spring by a rampant and persistent virus, were not able to give or to receive Mother’s Day cards and gifts:  

Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card. 

Anna Jarvis, May 1, 1864 – Nov. 24, 1948


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