Throughout history, mothers and motherhood have enjoyed a place of honor. But an annual ritual of thanking Mom with feasts, festivals, and flowers? That’s pretty new. Before we get into the beginnings of the Mother’s Day we know and love, let’s take a look further back in time.
Good Goddess Almighty!
The earliest societies paid tribute to their female deities, crafting idols and praying to them for fertility in childbearing and crop raising. To ensure a productive growing season, spring was the time to celebrate.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped Isis, who was not only daughter of the God of the Earth and the Goddess of the Sky but also mother of the pharaohs. With such a divine lineage, she was a natural for the title of ideal wife, ideal mother, goddess of fertility and magic, as well as goddess of motherhood. Murals show Isis crowned with a throne or the sun, arms like wings outstretched to enfold us all.
In ancient Greece, people prayed to Rhea, asking for a good planting season, and they believed she was the ultimate mother. She was the one who gave birth to the truly gifted gods, like Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and Pluto.
The Romans of antiquity had their Mother Earth or Mother Nature in Cybele, also known as the Magna Mater—translated as the Great Mother. One of the very first holidays for mothers was dedicated to Cybele and called Hilaria. There were games and parades as part of a three-day celebration that started on March 15, aka the Ides of March. Good times were also part of a Roman holiday that focused on Juno, goddess protector of marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth. On this holiday, mortal mothers, too, got in on the presents and attention.
From Fast to Feast
Fast-forward to England in the 1600s. The Virgin Mary had already been the subject of praise and prayers for centuries. The clergy suddenly decided to extend the honors paid to the mother of God to mothers of lesser beings. “Mothering Sunday,” as it was called, gave Mary her due, but it also allowed servants and tradesmen (and even women) the chance to return home to their mothers and families for a bit of feasting and relaxing. Coming on the fourth Sunday during Lent, Mothering Day must have been a welcome day off—not only from grueling work but from the fasting and repenting for past sins of the season preceding Easter.
The Birth of a Modern Mother’s Day
One of seven children and the mother of six children herself, Julia Ward Howe is generally recognized for starting Mother’s Day in America. Her goal, however, was not to bestow entitlements and indulgences upon her 19th-century sisters but to remind them of their responsibilities and inspire them to activism. A Civil War era abolitionist, she penned the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic in 1862. One of the most popular songs of her (or any) time, the lyrics were a springboard for fame, and the public was a rapt audience for further expressions of evocative platitudes.
Twelve years later, understanding the pain suffered by mothers of both Union and Confederate soldiers killed in battle, Julia decided she had to preach for peace. To do so, she went against the wishes of her husband, who expected his wife to spend their empty nest years tending to his needs. Instead, Julia traveled far and wide. Her “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in 1870, in Boston, began: “Arise then … women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts!” It went on to implore, “Let women now leave all that may be left of home / For a great and earnest day of counsel.” Her urging was not just directed to the mothers and grown daughters from the American North and South but to the women of the world: “In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask / That a general congress of women without limit of nationality / May be appointed … To promote … / The great and general interests of peace.”
Despite her ambitions for an annual, international, June 2nd commemoration, Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day didn’t capture much of a following. However, a group of women in West Virginia kept the dream alive on a smaller scale. Trying to bring together families and neighbors who had been on different sides during the Civil War, the group put on what they called a “Mother’s Friendship Day.”
Leading this women’s group was an outspoken social worker named Ann Reeves Jarvis. “I hope that someone, sometime will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her [the universal mother] for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it,” Ann sermonized to the class of her 12-year-old daughter Anna Marie.
After Ann died in 1905, her devoted daughter Anna Marie took over the job of getting Mother’s Day officially recognized and observed. Such an accomplishment would honor her mother in memoriam, as well as all mothers everywhere and their work for peace. In an early gesture, she sent carnations to her church, Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia (which is still in existence). This type of flower had been her mother’s favorite, and Anna felt that white ones represented the purity of a mother’s love.
On May 10, 1908, the church celebrated the first real Mother’s Day. Motherhood was the subject of sermons there and in Philadelphia, and all the mothers who came received a pair of white carnations.
Later, Anna Marie Jarvis and those who supported her cause wrote to local, state, and federal officials urging them to make Mother’s Day a permanent tradition. By 1911, Americans across the country were celebrating Mother’s Day. On May 8, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a Joint Resolution proclaiming the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. A commemorative stamp came out, with a vase of carnations pictured on it.
Although she never married or had children of her own, Anna Marie Jarvis is nevertheless considered the mother of Mother’s Day. Her work clearly paid off, and yet she was soon to regret it. Feasts and flowers and parties and gift-giving quickly became part and parcel of the annual festivities. Infuriated at the level of commercialism, Jarvis protested flower sales, petitioned to have the words “Mother’s Day” removed from the postage stamp, sued to stop celebrations, and demanded that Mother’s Day be revoked.
She was able to get the stamp revised, but that was the extent of her success. When she died, she was poor, blind, and almost friendless. She never knew that the Florist’s Exchange, which had profited enormously from sales of carnations, among many other flowers, on Mother’s Day, had covered her housing and nursing costs for years.
That’s Not All, Folks!
So now you know how Mother’s Day came about. When you think of all that mothers sacrifice, worry about, and lose sleep over for the sake of their children, it’s a wonder they get only one day. Ditto for all the grandmas—grand and great—and the multitasking stepmoms, doting aunts, and supportive sisters. Nothing against Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July, but aren’t they all about indulging the kids? As the old proverb goes, “God could not be everywhere, so He made Mothers.”
Now it’s our turn. Let’s find ways beyond flowers, handbags, kitchenware, and taking Mom out for a meal to thank all those who have mothered us and made sacrifices for us. Let’s honor all mothers by keeping pertinent issues in the political forefront, with dedicated funding streams that meet current economic realities. Let’s work to strengthen programs for maternal health and women’s health; maternity, paternity, and adoption leave plus earned sick leave; home-visiting programs; quality child care and pre-K; and public schools that are safe, nurturing, and challenging. These are the gifts mothers want every day.