Understanding the origin of Mother’s Day is important in order to celebrate the holiday as it was originally intended, or at least to honor its origin. Sometimes commercialism gets in the way of the true meaning of the holiday.
An activist in Philadelphia named, Anna Jarvis (1864-1948), founded Mother’s Day. She did it as a tribute to her own mother at the beginning of the 20th century. The first Mother’s Day was May 10, 1908, when Jarvis sent 500 carnations to her mother’s church in Grafton, W. VA., Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church. Her tribute created an immensely positive reaction. After a period of considerable lobbying and the efforts that came from writing letters, President Woodrow Wilson signed a promulgation, May 9, 1914, that reserved the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day, an expression given publicly, of love and respect for the mothers of this country.
Jarvis petitioned businessmen and politicians worldwide to promote a Mother’s Day celebration. Her efforts were rewarded with the celebration of Mother’s Day in South America, Asia and Africa.
After a while, Jarvis believed the true origin of Mother’s Day, was being exploited by selfish candy, floral and greeting card companies. They were gashing the public, using the holiday as a means of profiteering, according to the New York Times, on May 18, 1923.
According to Jarvis, “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.” This came from Malcolm Forbes’s book, Women Who Made A Difference.
Then Jarvis lobbied the government to have Mother’s Day removed from the U.S. calendar, because the day stopped being about mothers and became more about making money. She spent most of her money fighting, and suing parties that used the “Mother’s Day” name to sell their wares. She fought until her death in 1948.
There are those who believe Mother’s Day was more about Jarvis, and less about honoring her mother. It is true that she was devoted to conserving the meaning of the holiday. However, it seemed to expand her pride over all else. Jarvis signed everything as, “Anna Jarvis, Founder of Mother’s Day.” It had become her identity, according to author and historian, Katharine Antoloini, who wrote Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day. Jarvis herself, was not married and did not have any children.
Before President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation, making Mother’s Day a nationally recognized holiday, it saw a very dark season. The history of this flowery holiday was not so happy and cheery.
The original Mother’s Day had an altogether different purpose. In 1868, “Mother’s Friendship Day,” was put together so the mothers of Union Confederate soldiers could get together. This was a time for them to mourn, as a group, the loss of husbands and sons. They honored fallen soldiers together.
The very earliest instances of Mother’s Day in the U.S. were formed for many reasons, however, celebrating mothers was not one of them. In West Virginia, in the 1800’s, women’s groups gathered together to discuss issues. The issues they talked about ranged from diseases and milk contamination, to infant mortality. A composer, Julia Ward Howe, issued a “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” in 1870. She urged women to be politically active, and promote peace after the U.S. Civil War.
The original Mother’s Day flower was the carnation. There were organizations that sold carnations each year to raise money for various causes. Jarvis was extremely opposed to this action. Jarvis got lost in her version of what Mother’s Day should look like. It is important to remember where and how Mother’s Day originated, as it is important to celebrate in a way that is true to personal beliefs and traditions.
By Jeanette Smith
Photo courtesy of Peter Miller – Creativecommons Flickr License