Laura Dean Bennett
There’s one sure thing about everyone in the whole, wide world – everyone has a mother.
Setting aside a day on the calendar to honor our mothers is not unique to Americans or to our modern Western culture. Humans have always venerated motherhood and set aside a special time of commemoration for it – even in ancient times.
Many historians point to the celebration of mothers as having first been recorded in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians held ceremonies and celebrations each year to honor their goddess, Isis. To the Egyptians, Isis represented motherhood and fertility, and was believed to be the mother of Horus, who was considered to be the mythological ruler of Egypt. Thus, Isis became the “mother of all pharaohs” and the celebration of Isis became a celebration of mothers.
In 250 A.D., Romans were celebrating their own version of Mother’s Day. It was an annual spring festival which lasted three days and was called Hilaria. It celebrated the goddess Cybele, “the Great Mother.” She was worshiped by the ancient Romans as the mother of a fertile earth. Her followers would make offerings at the temple, hold parades, play games and have masquerade parties.
Ancient Greeks also celebrated a Mother’s Day. They held festivities over several days in the springtime to honor their maternal goddess, Rhea, “the mother of all goddesses.” Games, festivals, fresh flowers and parades were part of their holiday celebration for their “Great Mother.”
British Mother’s Day is called, “Mothering Sunday.” It is thought to have originated in the 1500s when “Mothering Sunday” was a church holiday celebrated on the 4th Sunday of Lent. It was a day when parishioners were encouraged to attend services at their cathedral, or “mother church.” These pilgrimages eventually turned into family reunions. Often, after the prayer service, children would present flowers to their mothers. The holiday is still popular today, and has evolved into something more akin to our own Mother’s Day celebrations on this “side of the pond.”
In America, the history of Mother’s Day is more the history of American female activism than of sentimentality. The story of American Mother’s Day begins as the country was being wracked by the horrors of the Civil War.
Many women in the 19th century believed that they bore a special responsibility as mothers or potential mothers to mend the ills of society and turn America into a more civilized nation.
Women activists played a major role in the abolitionist movement. In the following decades, they launched campaigns against mistreatment of freed slaves, and they fought for improved working conditions for women and protection for children, public health services and assistance to the poor.
To these women, the connection between motherhood and the fight for social and economic justice seemed clear.
The feisty American women who conceived a day dedicated to women’s public activism would be bewildered by our modern celebration of Mother’s Day.
The seeds of Mother’s Day in the United States were originally sown during the Civil War. To protest to the carnage of that war, grieving women who were losing their husbands and sons, banded together to work for peace. And they weren’t shy about speaking their minds.
If these feisty 19th Century American women who conceived a day dedicated to women’s public activism were to return this Mother’s Day they would be bewildered by our modern celebration of it.
Certainly Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis would be disappointed to find mothers being taken to brunch by their families, rather than marching in the streets.
Anna Jarvis, credited with being the mother of modern Mother’s Day, was born May 1, 1864 in the village of Webster, Taylor County, in what became West Virginia, in a two-story wooden house built by her father, Granville E. Jarvis. The house was built in 1854, and the family occupied the home during one of the most tragic periods of American history.
The house became a focal point of the Civil War when General George B. McClellan used it as his headquarters. It is now Anna Jarvis Birthplace Museum and is located four miles south of Grafton on US Route 119/250.
Anna Jarvis grew up watching her mother, Ann, take on the many social problems and public heath issues of her day.
Anna’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, organized women’s work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and lower infant mortality by fighting disease and milk contamination.
During the Civil War, these women’s groups also tended wounded Union and Confederate soldiers at great personal cost to themselves.
During the same period, a women’s peace movement was being led by Bostonian Julia Ward Howe. It was a protest of the Civil War’s carnage by mothers who had lost their sons.
Howe, best known as the composer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” issued the widely read “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in 1870, calling for an annual “Mother’s Day for Peace.”
Howe wrote: “Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage… Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
Ann Jarvis was also committed to the cause of peace. She and many other women organized Mother’s Friendship Day picnics and other events in an attempt to unite former Civil War foes.
Ann’s daughter, Anna Jarvis, never had children of her own. The 1905 death of her activist mother hit her hard and inspired Jarvis to organize the first American Mother’s Day observance in 1908.
Largely through Jarvis’s efforts, Mother’s Day came to be observed in a growing number of cities and states until on May 8th, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed the resolution designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.
But rather than being proud of her accomplishment, Jarvis would spend most of her later life fighting what Mother’s Day had become.
Outraged by florists who were selling carnations for the exorbitant price of $1 a piece, Jarvis undertook a campaign against those who “would undermine Mother’s Day with their greed.”
She even disapproved of pre-printed Mother’s Day cards.
“A printed card means nothing,” she said, “except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”
Of course, she was fighting a losing battle. The advertising industry had already taught Americans to honor their mothers not with pledges of peace and letters of appreciation, but with flowers and gifts.
Jarvis incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association and tried to retain some control of the holiday.
She objected to using the day in any other way other than honoring one’s mother and spending the day with her. She organized boycotts, threatened lawsuits, and even attacked First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise funds for charities.
In 1923 she crashed a convention of confectioners selling Mother’s Day candy in Philadelphia and in 1925 she was arrested for disturbing the peace when she protested at the American War Mothers convention, because the organization used Mother’s Day for fundraising.
Jarvis’s fervent attempts to reform Mother’s Day continued until at least the early 1940s. In 1948 she died at the age of 84, penniless and in a state of dementia, in Philadelphia’s Marshall Square Sanitarium. Fighting the commercialization of the holiday she’d help to create had cost Jarvis everything.
Anna Jarvis, the West Virginia woman who fought for a national day of celebrating motherhood and her mother, who bravely challenged the status quo 150 years ago, would be proud to know that women of the 21st century are still fighting to make life in America better.
Although Mother’s Day isn’t celebrated in the civic-minded way that the early female American activists had planned, we do, and undoubtedly, always will, celebrate it.
“A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends desert us; when trouble thickens around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts.” – Washington Irving