History of Mother’s Day

history of mother’s day

History of Mother’s Day

This year has been CRAZY busy. With three of my very best friends getting married within a month and a half of each other (May-June), it seems like every weekend since the beginning of the year has been dedicated to celebrating those three women. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a blast BUT I have slacked in some other areas as a result. Like planning Mother’s day for my mother. Normally I make her a card and some sort of gift, but with everything going on around me I just haven’t even thought about the upcoming holiday! So, today I went to Hallmark. There’s nothing wrong with sending a store bought card, but I like to think that I can express my feelings and gratitude just fine in my own words. (Mom, if you’re reading this, I hope you agree.) My disappointment grew as I flipped through card after beautiful card…all written by someone else..who couldn’t possibly understand the way I felt about MY mom.

You’re probably wondering what any of that has to do with the history of Mother’s Day. Well, the experience got me thinking about the holiday and exactly what Mother’s Day means. I started questioning what it meant to me, personally. Did I want flowers? A spa gift card? A day off from Diapers? (duh.) Or, did I want something else entirely? What would it mean if I spent the day away from the ball of fire that made me a mother. Does that make me a “bad” mom? And so as I’m rapid-fire questioning my very role, I was suddenly hit with the realization that there must be a background to this day that goes beyond the commercialization of Motherhood.  Right? Well, yes…and no.

Turns out the ancient Greeks were pretty into moms. Well, one mom. THE mom. Rhea, mother of gods. (Zeus, Demeter, Poseidon..among other bad-asses of Greek mythology.) She was celebrated prominently with a yearly festival revolving around fertility. So, while the actual celebration of a human mother may not have existed, it did create a foundation for a later recognition of mothers and motherhood. Later, as Christianity spread through Europe and the UK, a special Sunday service was offered and parishioners were encouraged to return to their “mother church” for that day. Eventually, that Sunday celebration included a more secular element where children presented their own mothers with small tokens of appreciation.

The American celebration of motherhood didn’t start until the years prior to the civil war and not in the way that one might expect. Ann Jarvis, of West Virginia, founded “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” that were tasked with educating local women on how to properly care for their children. Later, these same clubs which had spread throughout the East coast, were unifying agents for Confederate and Union soldiers promoting friendship amongst veterans. This became known as “Mother’s Friendship Day.” Later still, a “Mother’s Day Proclamation” was issued that called women to unite and promote world peace during the rising Feminist movement. Instead of celebrating one’s own mother, this early incarnation of the day recognized the fundamental role, and perhaps job, of mothers everywhere. To lead, educate, encourage, support, and to love. That is an idea I can definitely get behind.


Photo credit: www.2bsisters.com

In the ultimate show of gratitude, the daughter of Ann Jarvis, Anna Jarvis, set out in the early 1900’s to honor her mother’s work by establishing a day that revolved around mommas and the sacrifices they make for their children every.single.day.


Photo credit: www.dispatch.com

This is where the modern Mother’s day was born. Coupling with Anna, John Wanamaker, of Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia, staged an event at his store on the same day Anna hosted an event at her Methodist church in West Virginia. While I’m sure Mr. Wanamaker loved his mother dearly, I also believe that he saw the retail value in this holiday. Though, perhaps without the huge success of his event, Anna Jarvis wouldn’t have sought to add Mother’s Day to the official national calendar. (The day was eventually added in 1914 by President Woodrow Wilson.)


Photo credit: www.philapark.com

The sad ending to this story is that Anna Jarvis eventually saw how commercialized the holiday had become, which was a far cry from what she believed the purpose of the day was. While she supported the purchase of a white carnation to wear in respect of the day, she never intended for floral companies to take it so far. She spent the rest of her days trying to reform the holiday and even get it removed from the calendar. 

26th March 1960: Children looking at the display for 'Mother's Day' in a flower shop in Highgate, London. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

26th March 1960: Children looking at the display for ‘Mother’s Day’ in a flower shop in Highgate, London. (Photo by Getty Images)

So, what does this all mean? I have to confess, after researching about the holiday I was feeling pretty guilty about sending my husband a list of things I “needed” for Mother’s day. But then I thought about it again. There isn’t any reason why I can’t celebrate motherhood in multiple ways. I know my husband wants to celebrate me and the job I do in helping raise our child (among other things), and that’s okay because I appreciate the heck out of his gratitude. I, on the other hand, can celebrate in my own way. Seeing as how Ann Jarvis meant to create a day of action that showcased the important characteristics of motherhood, I plan to seek out ways in which I can do the same. I have some ideas on how to do this and am looking forward to gathering with some mommy-friends and intentionally celebrating motherhood through service.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit about the history of Mother’s Day and that you are completely showered with love on Sunday! Let me know how you like to celebrate in the comments below!

About the Author /

Lanie is a wife, mother to her two boys, and has a huge passion for maternal health, nutrition, and fitness.

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