How did Mother's Day develop?
Mother's Day, or sometimes called Mothering Day or Mothering Sunday, represents a holiday in celebration of mothers and motherhood. While the concept is fairly standard in many countries, it is also among the least uniform holidays, as many countries have celebrated this holiday from ancient periods. In the United States, Mother Day formally began in the early 20th century.
Early Origin of Mother's Day
Mother's Day is a common observance, both religious and secular versions, in many countries, including Christian, Muslim, and other countries. The early history of the holiday connect to the ancient Near East, Greek, and other Old World cultures that celebrated the mother goddess, such as Cybele, Rhea in Greek mythology, and other similar versions of either mother goddesses or important wives of gods. There is no ancient source that mentions a designated day called Mother's Day, but traditions of celebrating motherhood and, more broadly, the rearing of children have existed perhaps at least since the Pleistocene (i.e., before 12,000 years ago). The celebration of fertility, childbearing, child-rearing, and motherhood were important to past societies that often had high death rates in childhood but also for mothers. Flowers, a key symbol of life, were often associated with motherhood and nurture. Celebrations included offering and sacrifices to the mother goddess for good luck. Many of these celebrations took place around the time of the spring equinox (March 20), a time often associated with spring renewal, fertility, and life, but the celebration also occurred at other times of the year.
The popularity of Mother's Day, or the celebration of motherhood, continued into the Christian Era. In fact, many aspects of sacred motherhood, associated with earlier religions, were ascribed to the Virgin Mary. The fourth Sunday of the Lent season was often reserved to remember the Virgin Mary and also to bless motherhood and mothers, which is the day that became known as Mothering Sunday in Christian Europe (Figure 1). Similar to the pre-Christian traditions, this was used as a way to pray for the safety and health of mothers in particular due to the difficulties of childbearing. Thus, traditionally in Catholic and even Protestant countries that adopted the tradition, Mothering Sunday was celebrated exactly three weeks before Easter. This explains why Europe often has a different date in celebrating Mother's Day, which Mothering Day later transformed to.
In 16th century, Mothering Sunday became associated with people returning to their mother church. Symbols that were associated with the Virgin Mary, during the Protestant Reformation, led to alternative symbolism for Mothering Sunday. In Protestant Europe, this meant the church became the mother of its flock and people. People would then return to their home churches on Mothering Sunday.
In the United States, Mother's Day developed its own traditions, where it ironically became popular from a woman who never had children. Ann Jarvis (Figure 2), who organized meetings between mothers from opposing sides in the Civil War, attempted to create a day to remember mothers. Her goal was to help reunite families after the war through the creation of what she called Mother's Friendship Day. Others, such as Julian Howe, tried to also create a remembrance day for mothers. These ideas received some local support but never spread in popularity across the United States. Ann Jarvis did, however, inspired her daughter, Anna Jarvis. After the elder Jarvis died, Anna helped create the first modern US Mother's Day celebration in Grafton, West Virginia. Anna wanted it to simply be a day to remember her mother for her sacrifice in the local church because that is where her mother taught Sunday School. That day was May 12, 1905, which was 3 days after Ann had died.
Anna, however, became inspired to make this not just a one-time celebration but something relevant to all mothers who sacrifice for their children. She was also inspired by the fact that much celebration focused on male achievement but rarely on women, particularly mothers who often were instrumental for their children's success. In 1908, a larger, official celebration was held in Philadelphia due to her persistence and help from a business owner John Wanamaker, who helped her establish a space for a larger celebration. Before the decade had finished, many churches and secular places began holding Mother's Day celebrations in eastern US cities. Effectively, What Ann could not achieve in life became achieve through her death and her daughter Anna's efforts.
By 1910, West Virginia was the first state to recognize Mother's Day, with other states quickly following. Jarvis had begun to actively campaign to have the day remembered as Mother's Day. White carnations, Ann's favorite flower and used by Anna as the symbol of her mother, became associated with Mother's Day and the House of Representatives passed a proclamation in 1913 making it the official flower worn by government employees on the Monday after Mother's Day. By 1914, an act of Congress officially declared the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day. As World War I was about to start, Mother's Day even became more poignant as a celebration of mothers who gave up their sons in times of war.
As the US holiday became established, some of its traditions began to influence other countries and their often older Mother's Day (or Mothering Sunday) traditions. For instance, sending flowers and candy to one's mother was not a typical form of celebration in many countries but the US version of such gifts began to be adopted by others. In fact, traditions mixing local customs and celebrations of mothers intermixed with US-style celebrations. While Mother's Day often looks similar in many countries, the dates are often different because of this mixing of traditions.
Interestingly, after the full adoption of Mother's Day by the US government under Woodrow Wilson, the holiday began to become more commercialized. Already by 1920, the holiday began to be associated with buying a box of chocolates, cards, and flowers for one's mother. This commercialization became denounced none other than Anna Jarvis. The only symbols she wanted were the white carnations, but marketers had other ideas. People began to see it as a day to treat their mothers, to take her away from housework, and also spoil mothers. This meant buying all sorts of products and going to a meal some place for Mother's Day. Advertisers encouraged this offering special deals and other benefits. The floral industry, which Anna had seen as her allies initially soon came into conflict with Anna, who decried their commercial tendencies to increase flower sales on Mother's Day. Anna had such a falling out that she wanted the holiday rescinded as an official day, as she saw that it had become nothing more than a commercial venture. In 1948, the year Anna had died, she had spent much of her remaining money on legal fees fighting what she considered was the abuse of the meaning of Mother's Day through various lawsuits.
While Anna ultimately lost her battle against Mother's Day commercialism, where in fact it is today one of the biggest days for spending outside of Christmas, Mother's Day also became symbolically important for other causes. Mother's Day, still one of the few holidays celebrating women, has become, at least in the United States, associated with feminist and minority causes. Protests for greater childcare benefits and paid time off for mothers to nurture their young children have become popular causes that now use Mother's Day as an annual day for awareness. On the other hand, for some, Mother's Day is seen for a call for more celebrating and trying to get society to see the benefits of traditional motherhood and family.
Mother's Day is both an ancient and relatively modern holiday. In the United States, its traditions were mostly secular, although celebrated initially in church. For other countries, it was often a religious holiday that celebrated motherhood and even the role mother's played in bringing up children. Many countries today celebrate Mother's Day, where the holiday has a variety of dates around the world, reflecting ancient traditional days but also more recent US influence on the concept of the holiday.
- For more on the influence of Mother goddesses and religious association with Mother's Day traditions internationally, see: Borgeaud, P. (2004). Mother of the gods: from Cybele to the Virgin Mary. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
- For more on celebrations of Mothering Sunday, see: Ozihel, Harding. (2011). Mothering Sunday. Frac Press.
- For more on the tradition of returning to your mother church, see: Keene, M. (1998). Introducing Christianity. Berkhamsted: Arthur James.
- For more on the history of Mother's Day in the United States, see: Antolini, K. L. (2014). Memorializing motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the struggle for control of Mother’s Day (First edition). Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
- For more on how Mother's Day became an official holiday, see: Garrigues, L., & Garrigues, L. (2008). Writing motherhood. New York: Scribner.
- For more on the development of Mother's Day internationally, see: O’Reilly, A. (Ed.). (2010). Encyclopedia of motherhood. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications, pg. 858.
- For more on Anna Jarvis' later attempts against the commercialization of the holiday, see: Antolini 2017
- For more on the later significance of Mother's Day, see: Burrell, B. C. (2004). Women and political participation: a reference handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, pg. 34.