The Origins of Mother's Day

Updated May 6, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

On Sunday, May 8th, people in North America and around the world will celebrate Mother’s Day. Postal services will be inundated with affectionate Mother’s Day cards. Florists will prepare countless bouquets of white carnations. And telephone lines will buzz with the millions of affectionate calls from children who’ve flown the nest. 

But where did Mother’s Day come from? In this article, we’ll delve into the history of Mother’s Day, and how it’s changed over the years. 

When did Mother’s Day Begin?

Celebrations of mothers are almost as old as civilization itself. Ancient Asian civilizations worshiped a “Great Mother of the Gods”, known by various names. As the Greek, and later, the Roman civilizations expanded, they associated this deity with their own Goddesses. In Greek mythology, the goddess Rhea, mother of Zeus and several other Titans, became the focus of cult worship. In Rome, she was called Cybele, and was worshiped with often wild and passionate ceremonies. 

In the US, Mother’s Day began early in the 20th century and can be attributed to a handful of strong and intelligent American women. 

The first seeds were sown by Ann Jarvis, an incredible woman who worked tirelessly to protect mothers and families. Diseases were rampant and deadly at the time– Mrs. Jarvis lost 9 children to illness– so she set up Mother’s Day Work Clubs to educate women and families about health and hygiene. Many of these were held at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where Mrs. Jarvis was very active in the community. This church would later become the birthplace of the modern Mother’s Day celebration (more on that later).

Poet and activist Julia Ward Howe had also been involved in suffrage movements with Ann Jarvis. Deeply affected by the death and suffering she witnessed as a nurse in the Civil War, she wrote the poem ‘Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870. It called upon mothers around the world to band together and find peaceful solutions to the world’s problems. 

Her attempts to form an official Mother’s Day never materialized, but it eventually happened thanks to Anna Jarvis, daughter of Ann Jarvis. She had heard her mother, whom she admired greatly, say that she wished someone would found a memorial day for mothers everywhere, to honor the work they do to improve all of humanity. 

When Mrs. Jarvis died in Philadelphia, surrounded by her surviving children, Anna set out to fulfill her mother’s wishes. In 1908, three years after Ann’s death, Anna held a service at Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton to celebrate the first Mother’s Day. Anna Jarvis wanted people to honor and celebrate their own mothers, rather than commemorating mothers everywhere. 

She chose the second Sunday of May as it would always be close to the date of her mother’s death. She sent hundreds of white carnations, which symbolized the purity of her mother’s love. Soon after, she set up the Mother’s Day International Association to advance her cause. The celebration spread quickly, and in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared it a national holiday. 

From Passion to Profiteering

It was not long before retailers realized the huge commercial potential. Businesses, primarily greeting card makers, florists and confectioners, seized upon the special day to increase their profits through Mother’s Day gifts. 

Sadly, Anna Jarvis’s efforts to prevent the commercialization of Mother’s Day took their toll. She spent the rest of her days (and her wealth) campaigning against it, and this left her broken and destitute. 

She died in a sanitarium in November 1948, aged 84, and was buried next to her mother and sister. Perhaps surprisingly, she was never a mother herself. 

Why is Mother’s Day Celebrated on Different Days in the UK and US?

Many countries hold a version of Mother’s Day on the same day as the US, but there are plenty that do not. 

The British celebrate Mothering Sunday. Even though it’s sometimes also referred to as Mother’s Day in the UK, it’s held on a different date to the US version and has very different origins. This year, Mothering Sunday was on the 27th of March. 

In 16th century Britain, it was a tradition that during the time of Lent, people would make a journey to their ‘Mother church’. Typically, this would be the parish of their birth or the nearest cathedral. This event also served as a rare opportunity for young people working away from home to visit their families. 

It was also a custom for wealthy estates to allow their workers the fourth Sunday of Lent to return home and visit their mothers. The merging of these two traditions gave rise to Mothering Sunday

However, it fell out of fashion towards the start of the 20th century. That was until a lady named Constance Penswick-Smith noticed Anna Jarvis’s success in establishing Mother’s Day in America. Inspired by this, she revived Mothering Sunday, and it remains a huge event in the UK and Ireland every year. 

Why is Mother’s Day Important?

The women responsible for Mother’s Day wanted to celebrate the impact mothers have. Anne Jarvis believed mothers have the power to change the world for the better when they work together. Her daughter Anna, and Julia Ward Howe wanted to honor mothers for the sacrifices they make on behalf of their children. 

How do you properly honor and celebrate the woman who gave you the gift of life? It’s a question we’ll all have to ask ourselves as we approach Sunday, the 8th of May. 

Anna Jarvis famously said, “a printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.” One wonders what she would make of today’s Mother’s Day, when technology enables us to video call or send a message to our mothers without even leaving the sofa. 

Why not discover more about Mother’s Day, take our quiz of famous mothers, or even read some inspirational Mother’s Day quotations?

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