Do you know how Mother’s Day came to be celebrated?
Mothers have always had a key role in building and maintaining connections across generations. Even today, they most often take the lead in passing down family stories, life lessons and traditions. Honoring this important role is part of the story behind Mother’s Day.
Cynics may claim that Mother’s Day was developed as a commercial holiday to boost sales of cards, candy and flowers. Others may believe it’s a day solely to celebrate the domestic role of women. Neither of these perceptions is accurate. Consumerism may have fueled the commercialism associated with the holiday. And though the role of mothers in families is indeed still very important, Mother’s Day is not only about honoring a woman’s devotion to her own family. Mother’s Day is actually a tribute to the broader networks, social ties and political concerns of women, and about women’s commitment to the past, present, and future on both the personal and political levels. It honors women who have acted not only on behalf of their own children, but also on behalf of an entire future generation.
The story of modern Mother’s Day begins in the peace movement, as a day recognizing women’s social action. In the United States, Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), a Boston writer, pacifist and suffragist, first suggested a Mothers’ Day in 1872. She envisioned it as a day dedicated to peace.
Howe was greatly distressed when Europe plunged into the Franco-Prussian War so soon after her generation had suffered through the American Civil War. For several years she worked toward the recognition of a “Mothers’ Day for Peace” on June 2. She organized meetings in Boston to rally the support of women, whom she believed bore the loss of human life more harshly than anyone else. Men showed little interest in her ideas, but she appealed to war mothers and the women who supported husbands and sons at war, pleading, “Why do mothers not interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of human life, which they alone bear and know the cost?” Although her version of Mothers’ Day never really caught on, Howe went on to head the American branch of the Woman’s International Peace Association, which observed a day dedicated to peace.
The official observance of Mother’s Day in its present form is credited to Anna Jarvis (1864-1948) of Philadelphia. She wanted to honor the memory of her mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, who died in 1905. Mrs. Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis (sometimes referred to as “Mother Jarvis” to distinguish her from her daughter Anna) organized several “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” (later changed to “Mothers Friendship Clubs”) in the West Virginia area in the 1850s. Mrs. Jarvis gave birth to a total of twelve children, but eight of them died before they reached the age of seven. She wanted to combat the poor health and sanitary conditions that existed in many areas that directly contributed to the high mortality rate of children. The social action brigades provided medicine for the poor, nursing care for the sick and arranged help and proper medical care for those suffering from tuberculosis.
Mrs. Jarvis believed that appealing to the love and respect that everyone has for their own mother would help reunite families torn apart by the American Civil War and resolve the division that resulted in the United States. It took great skill and courage, but she was able to put together a very emotional event that reduced people to tears and had them embracing each other by the end. She hosted several more Mothers Friendship Days.
Mrs. Jarvis’ service to her community was not lost on her daughter, Anna. Up until her own death, Anna continually referred to her mother as the real originator of Mother’s Day, despite the fact that Anna herself worked tirelessly over several years to make it a national reality.
Anna’s efforts began in 1907, when she hosted a small gathering of friends in her home to commemorate her mother’s life and proposed a national day to honor mothers. A year later, she persuaded her mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia, to celebrate Mother’s Day on the anniversary of her mother’s death – the second Sunday of May. It was to be a day to honor all mothers, and also a day to remember the work of peacemaking, reconciliation and social action against poverty started by her mother. That same year, Mother’s Day was also celebrated in Philadelphia.
The role of women was changing rapidly during this period. During the first two decades of the 1900s, often referred to as the Progressive Era, women were entering into community building and political activities. Like other women at that time, Anna did not denigrate the role of mother, wife, and homemaker, but expanded it into the public arena. Women thought of government as “enlarged housekeeping” and used their skills to help improve it.
The definition of motherhood at the time gave women a moral responsibility for what happened outside their own homes. Women who participated in civil rights and welfare reform saw this work as essentially maternal in nature. They worked to ease social ills; they became scholars and scientists; they fought for the rights of various groups of people; and they raised their voices to rally for the right to vote. Many of these reformers were mothers as well as activists, but their contributions as mothers were often overlooked. The creation of Mother’s Day as a national holiday was meant to restore the status of mother as a cornerstone of the family and of the nation.
Anna and her supporters tirelessly wrote to ministers, business people, and politicians in their quest to establish a national Mother’s Day. By 1911, Mother’s Day was celebrated in almost every state. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made it official: Mother’s Day would be a national holiday held each year on the second Sunday in May. He stated that mothers were “the greatest source of the country’s strength and inspiration.” He ordered that the United States flag was to be displayed on all public buildings to honor mothers.
Anna went on to incorporate the Mother’s Day International Association and turned her attention to persuading other nations to celebrate Mother’s Day. Eventually, Mother’s Day would be observed in over fifty countries.
Anna Jarvis died in 1948, at the age of 84. Mother’s Day is the legacy of Anna Jarvis and her mother Ann Jarvis. At the heart of the traditions around Mother’s Day are themes of honoring mothers, compassion, peace, reconciliation and social action.
Today, Mother’s Day is celebrated (officially and unofficially) in dozens of countries, although on different dates: The second Sunday of May in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Turkey, Australia, Belgium and Japan; May 10 in Mexico, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates; December 8 in Spain and Portugal, which coincides with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Mothers are honored along with the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. Elsewhere in the world, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in February in Norway, the first Sunday in May in South Africa and the last Sunday in May in France and Sweden.
Considering that everyone has a mother, it isn’t surprising that celebrations to honor mother are held throughout the world. Mother’s Day is a celebration honoring the mother of the family, as well as motherhood, maternal bonds, and the influence of mothers in society.
St. Gerard Majella is honored to be considered the Mothers’ Saint, and always seeks God’s blessings for all mothers.