The History of Mother’s Day

mothers day history

The History of Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day History

mothers day history

The history of Mother’s Day is centuries old and the
earliest Mother’s Day celebrations can be traced back to the spring
celebrations of ancient Greece in honor of Rhea, the Mother of the Gods.
During the 1600’s, the early Christians in England celebrated a day to
honor Mary, the mother of Christ. By a religious order the holiday was
later expanded in its scope to include all mothers, and named as the
Mothering Sunday. Celebrated on the 4th Sunday of Lent (the 40 day
period leading up to Easter), “Mothering Sunday” honored the mothers of

During this time many of the England’s poor worked as servants for the
wealthy. As most jobs were located far from their homes, the servants
would live at the houses of their employers. On Mothering Sunday, the
servants would have the day off and were encouraged to return home and
spend the day with their mothers. A special cake, called the mothering
cake, was often brought along to provide a festive touch.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe the celebration changed to
honor the “Mother Church” – the spiritual power that gave them life and
protected them from harm. Over time the church festival blended with the
Mothering Sunday celebration . People began honoring their mothers as
well as the church.

With the passage of time, the practice of this fantastic tradition
ceased slowly. The English colonists settled in America discontinued the
tradition of Mothering Sunday because of lack of time.

In the United States, Mother’s Day was loosely inspired by the British
day and was first suggested after the American Civil War by social
activist Julia Ward Howe. Howe (who wrote the words to the Battle hymn
of the Republic) was horrified by the carnage of the Civil War and the
Franco-Prussian War and so, in 1870, she tried to issue a manifesto for
peace at international peace conferences in London and Paris (it was
much like the later Mother’s Day Peace Proclamation). During the
Franco-Prussian war in the 1870s, Julia began a one-woman peace crusade
and made an impassioned “appeal to womanhood” to rise against war. She
composed in Boston a powerful plea that same year (generally considered
to be the original Mothers’ Day proclamation*) translated it into
several languages and distributed it widely. In 1872, she went to London
to promote an international Woman’s Peace Congress. She began promoting
the idea of a “Mother’s Day for Peace” to be celebrated on June 2,
honoring peace, motherhood and womanhood. In the Boston Mass, she
initiated a Mothers’ Peace Day observance on the second Sunday in June,
a practice that was to be established as an annual event and practiced
for at least 10 years. The day was, however, mainly intended as a call
to unite women against war. It was due to her efforts that in 1873,
women in 18 cities in America held a Mother’s Day for Pace gathering.
Howe rigorously championed the cause of official celebration of Mothers
Day and declaration of official holiday on the day. She held meetings
every year at Boston on Mother’s Peace Day and took care that the day
was well-observed. The celebrations died out when she turned her efforts
to working for peace and women’s rights in other ways. Howe failed in
her attempt to get the formal recognition of a Mother’s Day for Peace.
Her remarkable contribution in the establishment of Mother’s Day,
however, remains in the fact that she organized a Mother’s Day dedicated
to peace. It is a landmark in the history of Mother’s Day in the sense
that this was to be the precursor to the modern Mother’s Day
celebrations. To acknowledge Howe’s achievements a stamp was issued in
her honor in 1988.

It should be well to remember that Howe’s idea was influenced by Ann
Marie Reeves Jarvis, a young Appalachian homemaker who, starting in
1858, had attempted to improve sanitation through what she called
“Mothers Friendship Day”. In the 1900’s, at a time when most women
devoted their time solely on their family and homes, Jarvis was working
to assist in the healing of the nation after the Civil War. She
organized women throughout the Civil War to work for better sanitary
conditions for both sides and in 1868 she began work to reconcile Union
and Confederate neighbors. Ann was instrumental in saving thousands of
lives by teaching women in her Mothers Friendship Clubs the basics of
nursing and sanitation which she had learned from her famous physician
brother James Reeves, M.D. In parts of the United States it was
customary to plant tomatoes outdoors after Mother’s Work Days (and not

It was Jarvis’ daughter, Anna Jarvis, who finally succeeded in
introducing Mother’s Day in the sense as we celebrate it today. Anna
graduated from the Female Seminary in Wheeling and taught in Grafton for
a while. Later she moved to Philadelphia with her family. Anna had spent
many years looking after her ailing mother. This is why she preferred to
remain a spinster. When her mother died in Philadelphia on May 9, 1905,
Anna missed her greatly. So did her sister Elsinore whom she looked
after as well. Anna felt children often neglected to appreciate their
mother enough while the mother was still alive. Now, she intended to
start a Mother’s Day, as an honoring of the mothers. In 1907, two years
after her mother’s death, Anna Jarvis disclosed her intention to her
friends who supported her cause wholeheartedly. So supported by her
friends, Anna decided to dedicate her life to her mother’s cause and to
establish Mother’s Day to “honor mothers, living and dead.” She started
the campaign to establish a national Mother’s Day. With her friends, she
started a letter-writing campaign to urge ministers, businessmen and
congressmen in declaring a national Mother’s Day holiday. She hoped
Mother’s Day would increase respect for parents and strengthen family

As a result of her efforts the first mother’s day was observed on May
10, 1908, by a church service honoring Late Mrs. Reese Jarvis, in the
Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where she spent 20
years taking Sunday school classes. Grafton is the home to the
International Mother’s Day Shrine. Another service was also conducted on
the same date in Philadelphia where Mrs. Jarvis died, leaving her two
daughters Anna and Elsinore. So it was more of a homage service for Mrs.
Reeves Jarvis than a general one conducted in honor of motherhood.
Nevertheless, this set the stage for the later Mother’s Day observances
held in the honor of motherhood.

Following this, it gained a widespread popularity across the nation. The
Mother’s Day International Association came into being on December 12,
1912, to promote and encourage meaningful observances of the event.
Anna’s dream came true when on May 9, 1914, the Presidential
proclamation declared the 2nd Sunday of May to be observed as Mother’s
Day to honor the mothers.

It was here in the first observance that the carnations were introduced
by Miss Jarvis. Large jars of white carnations were set about the
platform where the service was conducted. At the end of the exercise one
of these white carnations was given to each person present as a souvenir
of Mother’s Day. All this was done because the late elder Jarvis was
fond of carnations.

From there, the custom caught on — spreading eventually to 45 states.
The first Mother’s Day proclamation was issued by the governor of West
Virginia in 1910. Oklahoma celebrated it in that same year. It stirred
the same way in as far west as the state of Washington. And by 1911
there was not a state in the Union that did not have its own observances
for Mother’s Day. Soon it crossed the national boundary, as people in
Mexico, Canada, South America, China, Japan and Africa all joined the
spree to celebrate a day for mother love.

The Mother’s Day International Association came into being on December
12, 1912, to promote and encourage meaningful observances of the event.
Starting from 1912, Mother’s day began to be officially declared a
holiday by some states. Anna’s dream came true when in 1914, President
Woodrow Wilson declared the first national Mother’s Day, as a day for
American citizens to show the flag in honor of those mothers whose sons
had died in war.

The House of Representatives in May 1913 unanimously adopted a
resolution requesting the President, his cabinet, the members of both
Houses and all officials of the federal government to wear a white
carnation on Mother’s Day. On May 7,1914, a resolution providing that
the second Sunday in May be designated Mother’s Day was introduced by
Representative James T. Heflin of Alabama and Senator Morris Sheppard of
Texas. It passed both Houses and on May 9, 1914, President Woodrow
Wilson made the first official announcement proclaiming Mother’s Day as
a national holiday that was to be held each year on the 2nd Sunday of
May. He asked Americans to give a public expression of reverence to
mothers through the celebration of Mother’s Day:

“Now, Therefore, I, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of
America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the said Joint
Resolution, do hereby direct the government officials to display the
United States flag on all government buildings and do invite the people
of the United States to display the flag at their homes or other
suitable places on the second Sunday in May as a public expression of
our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”

And issuing a Mother’s day Proclamation has since then been a

Nine years after the first official Mother’s Day, commercialization of
the U.S. holiday became so rampant that Anna Jarvis herself became a
major opponent of what the holiday had become. While honored for her
part in the growth of the holiday, Anna Jarvis’ last life was miserable.
As the observance of Mother’s Day enjoyed increasing popularity, new
dimensions came to be added to it. This made Anna Jarvis disillusioned
with her own creation. Though the original spirit of honoring the
mothers remained the same, what began as a religious service expanded
quickly into a more secular observance leading to giving of flowers,
cards, and gifts. And Anna Jarvis was unable to cope with this changing
mode of expression.

In 1934 Postmaster General James A. Farley announced a stamp to
commemorate Mother’s Day. The stamp featured the famous painting
“Arrangement in Grey and Black”. The painting was a portrait of the
mother of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, an English artist. It was
brought in to the United States as part of an exhibit in the year 1934.

Mother’s Day continues to this day to be one of the most commercially
successful U.S. occasions. According to the National Restaurant
Association, Mother’s Day is now the most popular day of the year to
dine out at a restaurant in the United States. The occasion is now
celebrated not so much with flags as with gifts, cards, hugs, thank yous
and other tokens of affection. While many countries of the world
celebrate their own Mother’s Day on different days and at different
times throughout the year, there are some countries such as Denmark,
Finland, Italy, Turkey, Australia, and Belgium which also celebrate
Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May. In some countries, the
appreciation lasts for two days.

Today, Mother’s Day is a day honoring mothers, celebrated on various
days in many places around the world. It is the day when you acknowledge
your mothers contribution in your life and pay a tribute to her, often
with flowers and gifts. It complements Father’s Day, the celebration
honoring fathers.

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