My long-time friend from across the pond, MJ is my guest blogger today! We both live a long distance from our mothers which is hard around Mother’s Day, and particularly during a pandemic. Her historical coverage of this special day is an interesting journey through time!
This blog began as a book club conversation just after the UK celebrated Mother’s Day in March this year. We were discussing why Mother’s Day is celebrated on different dates in the US and Canada than in the UK, and my British friend explained it all started from Mothering Day in the UK when children who had left home for work returned to their home churches and to visit with their mothers. In honour of Mother’s Day, I thought it would be interesting to explore the history of the celebration and the reasons for the differences.
Turns out that historians can trace back some Mother’s Day traditions as far as the Ancient Egyptians – yes, the time when the Pyramids were built. The Egyptians celebrated Isis who is considered the mother goddess. In Ancient Greek times and throughout the Roman empire there were festivities that worshiped the goddesses Cybele, the great mother of the gods, and Rhea, the mother of Zeus.
In the UK, Mothering Sunday has been celebrated since the 16th century. At that time in history, it was common for children to leave home and work elsewhere. It became a tradition that on the 4th Sunday of lent these children had the day off and they would return to their mother church, the church where they were baptized. The day became a Christian religious holiday and readings and gospels on that day were passages associated with mothers or allegories for mothers. It is believed that even the tradition of giving flowers on Mother’s Day dates back to this time. As they walked along the country lanes, children would pick wild flowers or violets to take to church or give to their mother as a small gift.
In 17th century England, when the Church of England broke away from the Catholic Church, the tradition of Mothering Sunday became more focused on celebrating mothers and became an especially compassionate holiday toward the working classes of England. By the 20th century though these traditional celebrations had diminished in the UK and were not celebrated by the British immigrants to the US.
Mother’s Day as is celebrated today has no relation to the history of Mothering Sunday at all though. It began as an antiwar movement in the late 1800s in response to wars raging in the US and Europe. Julia Ward Howe wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation and then in1872 she began promoting Mothers’ Peace Day. At the same time, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis created Mother’s Day Work Clubs. The clubs were started to reduce disease and to decrease infant mortality through education and assistance. However, as the American Civil War waged on, the focus of the clubs became more related to maintaining neutrality and to providing help to soldiers on either side of the war.
In 1905, the year Anne Marie Reeves Jarvis died, her daughter Anna Jarvis began her quest to have Mother’s Day recognized as an official holiday. In 1907 she held the first Mother’s Day celebration for her mother at St Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. She was wearing a white carnation, her mother’s favourite flower. By 1911 most states were recognizing the holiday officially or unofficially but in 1914 Woodrow Wilson declared it an official American holiday that would be held on the second Sunday in May every year. With the popularity of Mother’s Day in the US on the rise, it revived the celebration of Mothering Sunday in the UK, which is now often referred to as Mother’s Day. Throughout the world, it is now a holiday that is celebrated on dates that are important to each country. Some of the dates are based on important religious dates, but some are other important dates, such as International Woman’s Day in many countries, or in Thailand, it is celebrated in August on the birthday of Siriki, the current queen (to see dates for other countries click this link).
By the early to mid-1920s Mother’s Day had become a commercial success. Hallmark was already making Mother’s Day cards and the white carnation came to symbolize it. Anna Jarvis was not happy with this and began to protest the exploitation of Mother’s Day by businesses. She wrote the following: “To have Mother’s Day the burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift day that Christmas and other special days have become, is not our pleasure. If the American people are not willing to protect Mother’s Day from the hordes of money schemers that would overwhelm it with their schemes, then we shall cease having a Mother’s Day—and we know how.”
Anna Jarvis never made a penny from Mother’s Day and died at the age of 84 broke and in Marshall Square Sanitarium.
As a tribute to my mother and Karen’s mother, who live so far from us, we are both sharing this blog and wishing our mothers a wonderful day.
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