We have a tendency in this culture, to make a big deal of our own birthday. What would it be like if our birthdays became “Mother’s Day”, instead? Why not, she did all the work. All any of the rest of us did, was to show up on cue, and scream.
The earliest discernible Mother’s day comes from 1200-700BC, descending from the Phrygian rituals of modern-day Turkey and Armenia. “Cybele” was the great Goddess of nature, mother of the Gods, of humanity, and of all the beasts of the natural world. Her cult would spread throughout Eastern Greece with colonists from Asia Minor.
Much of ancient Greece looked to the Minoan Goddess Rhea, daughter of the Earth Goddess Gaia and the Sky God Uranus, mother of the Gods of Olympus. Over time the two became closely associated with the Roman Magna Mater, each developing her own cult following and worshiped through the period of the Roman Empire.
In ancient Rome, women partook of a festival, strictly forbidden to Roman men. So strict was this line of demarcation that only women were permitted even to know the name of the deity. For everyone else she was simply the “Good Goddess”. The Bona Dea.
In the sixteenth century, it became popular for Protestants and Catholics alike to return to their “mother church” whether that be the church of their own baptism, the local parish church, or the nearest cathedral. Anyone who did so was said to have gone “a-mothering”. Domestic servants were given the day off and this “Mothering Sunday”, the 4th Sunday in Lent, was often the only time when whole families could get together. Children would gather wild flowers along the way, to give to their own mothers or to leave in the church. Over time the day became more secular, but the tradition of gift giving continued.
Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis was a social activist in mid-19th century western Virginia. Pregnant with her sixth child in 1858, she and other women formed “Mother’s Day Work Clubs”, to combat the health and sanitary conditions which were leading at that time to catastrophic levels of infant mortality. Jarvis herself gave birth between eleven and thirteen times in a seventeen year period. Only four of those would live to adulthood.
Jarvis had no patience for the sectional differences which led to the Civil War, or those which led her own locality to secede and form the state of West Virginia in order to rejoin the Union. Jarvis refused to support a measure to divide the Methodist church into northern and southern branches. She would help Union and Confederate soldier alike if she could. It was she alone who offered a prayer when others refused, for Thornsbury Bailey Brown, the first Union soldier killed in the vicinity.
Following her death in 1905, Jarvis’ daughter Anna conceived of Mother’s Day as a way to honor her legacy and to pay respect for the sacrifices that all mothers make on behalf of their children.
Obtaining financial backing from Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker, Anna Jarvis organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia.
Anna Jarvis resolved that Mother’s Day be added to the national calendar, and formed the International Mother’s Day Association, in 1912. She took out a patent on the name, the singular “Mother’s” expressive of her desire that each of us honor our own mother, and not some anonymous parade of “Mothers'”.
A massive letter writing campaign ensued and, on May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure declaring the second Sunday of May, to be Mother’s Day.
Anna Jarvis believed Mother’s Day to be a time of personal celebration, a time for families to gather to love and honor their mother. In the early days, Jarvis worked with the floral industry to help raise the profile of Mother’s Day, but she came to resent what she saw as over-commercialization. Greeting cards seemed a pale substitute for the hand written personal notes she envisioned. In 1923, Jarvis protested a Philadelphia candy maker’s convention, deriding confectioners, florists and even charities as “profiteers”.
Carnations had by this time become symbolic of Mother’s Day, and Jarvis resented that they were being sold at fundraisers. She protested at a meeting of the American War Mothers in 1925 where women were selling carnations, and got herself arrested for disturbing the peace.
She was soon filing lawsuits against those she felt had used the “Mother’s Day” name in vain.
During the last years of her life, Anna Jarvis lobbied the government to take her creation off of the calendar, gathering signatures door-to-door to get the holiday rescinded. The effort was obviously unsuccessful. The mother of mother’s day died childless in a sanitarium in 1948, her personal fortune squandered on legal fees.
So it is that the creator of Mother’s Day turned against her own holiday, but her creation lives on. Today, Mother’s Day is celebrated in over 40 countries. In the United States, Mother’s Day is one of the biggest days of the year for flower and greeting card sales, and the busiest day of the year for the phone company. Church attendance is the third highest of the year, behind only Christmas and Easter. Many celebrate the day with carnations: colored if the mother is still living and white if she has passed on.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. May this be the first of many more.