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  • Writer's pictureJan Peterson

How Mother's Day Came To Be

Mother’s Day is a holiday honoring motherhood and is observed in different forms throughout the world, but the tradition started centuries ago. Celebrations of motherhood can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

"Mothering Sunday"

In Christianity, the tradition became known as “Mothering Sunday”, and was celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent. It was originally seen as a time when the parish would return to their “mother church”—the main church in the vicinity of their home—for a special service.

Over time "Mothering Sunday" became a more secular holiday, and children would present their mothers with flowers and other tokens of appreciation. The origins of Mother’s Day as celebrated in the United States dates back to the 19th century. In the years before the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia helped start “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to teach local women how to properly care for their children. These clubs later became a unifying force in a region of the country still divided over the Civil War. In 1868 Jarvis organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” at which mothers gathered with former Union and Confederate soldiers to promote reconciliation. This custom eventually faded in popularity before merging with the American Mother’s Day in the 1930s and 1940s.

The First Official "Mother's Day"

The modern day Mother's Day was created by Anna Jarvis (daughter of Anna Reeves Jarvis) in 1908 and became an official U.S. holiday in 1914. Her mother had frequently expressed a desire for the establishment of such a holiday, and after her mother's death in 1905, Jarvis

created Mother’s Day as a way of honoring the sacrifices mothers made for their children.

After gaining financial backing from a Philadelphia department store owner named John Wanamaker, in May 1908, she organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. The same day, thousands of people also attended a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s retail stores in Philadelphia.

Following the success of her first Mother’s Day, Jarvis—who remained unmarried and childless her whole life—resolved to see her holiday added to the national calendar. Arguing that American holidays were biased toward male achievements, she started a massive letter writing campaign to newspapers and prominent politicians urging the adoption of a special day honoring motherhood.

By 1912 many states, towns and churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday, and Jarvis had established the Mother’s Day International Association to help promote her cause. Her persistence paid off in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Jarvis's later years

As the years passed, Jarvis grew disenchanted with the growing commercialization of the observation and even attempted to have Mother's Day rescinded. She spoke out against confectioners, florists and even charities and launched countless lawsuits against groups that had used the name “Mother’s Day,” and profited from the holiday. She died in 1948 in a sanitarium, and ironically, her medical bills paid by people in the floral and greeting card industries.

“Mother is a verb. It’s something you do. Not just who you are.”

Dorothy Canfield Fisher

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