The History of Mother’s Day

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Do you know the origins of Mother’s Day? Find out how celebrating motherhood began and revel in the beauty (and challenges!) of being a mom.

Breakfast in bed? Coffee served on a silver tray? Pink roses in a cut crystal vase?

If these are your ideas of a Mother’s Day wake up call, you’re not alone. The only thing I truly care about is that the coffee—served piping hot with just the right amount of cream—sits next to the longest, darkest chocolate bar ever seen by human eyes. Yes … a croissant would be nice, and fresh strawberries, too. But boy, oh boy!—give me coffee and chocolate in bed on Mother’s Day and I will be the “bestest” mommy for a year.

The History of Mother’s Day

This is not what the originators of the celebration had in mind, of course. The ancient Greeks celebrated a holiday to honor the mother of gods, Rhea; the ancient Romans celebrated Cybele, a mother goddess; for the Celtics, the goddess Brigid was connected with the first milk of the ewes (maybe this explains the perfect cream in my coffee thing). But it was Anna Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia who initiated the idea of our modern American Mother’s Day. Just before and during the Civil War, she worked as an activist to improve sanitary conditions and to care for the wounded. She organized Mothers’ Work Day Clubs to carry out this mission. And after Julia Ward Howe, author of Battle Hymn of the Republic, established a “Mother’s Day for Peace” in 1872—because of her observations of two wars’ carnage—10 different countries celebrated, for the first time, the unique role of womanhood and motherhood, in the context of world peace.

Years later Anna Jarvis, daughter of Anna Reeves Jarvis, vowed at her mother’s gravesite in 1905 to establish a “Mother’s Day” to honor mothers—both living and dead—and thus became the power behind the establishment of the holiday in the United States. In 1907 she started the tradition of using flowers to commemorate the occasion by passing out 500 white carnations (her mother’s favorite flower), giving one to every mother in the congregation of St. Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. The following year, the church designated a Sunday service to honor mothers, and even the powerful philanthropist John Wanamaker of Philadelphia joined her campaign. By 1909, Mother’s Day services were held in churches in 46 states plus Canada and Mexico. Finally, in 1914, the US Congress passed a Joint Resolution, signed by President Woodrow Wilson, declaring Mother’s Day a celebration of women’s role in the family.

The initial wish of Anna Jarvis was that the day be celebrated with sentiment rather than profit. She not only despised the idea of selling flowers (she gave away carnations) but she hated the idea of using greeting cards to express sentiment, calling them “a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write.”

My, oh my, how far have we come! Now with Mother’s Day being one of the busiest days of the year for florists, restaurants, Internet and phone service providers, and of course Hallmark, how can we honor the wishes of its founding lady without sacrificing current methods for the day? Do we make too much of it … or do we not celebrate enough? And just how should we honor the mothers in our lives once we become moms ourselves? The respect gained for our own mothers once we join the ranks could never have been predicted pre-motherhood.

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