The earliest discernible Mother’s day comes down to us from 1200-700BC, descending from the Phrygian rituals of modern day Turkey and Armenia. “Cybele” was the great Phrygian goddess of nature, mother of the Gods, of humanity, and of all the beasts of the natural world, her cult spreading 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 worshipped through the period of the Roman Empire.
In ancient Rome, women partook of a festival, strictly forbidden to Roman men. So inflexible 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 in which they were baptized, 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 “Mothers’ 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 would live to adulthood.
Jarvis had no patience for the sectional differences that led the nation to Civil War, or 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 Jarvis’ death in 1905, her daughter Anna conceived of Mother’s Day as a way to honor her legacy, and to pay respect for the sacrifices 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. That same day, thousands attended the first Mother’s Day event at Wanamaker’s store in Philadelphia.
Anna Jarvis resolved that Mother’s Day be added to the national calendar, and a massive letter writing campaign ensued. 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 when families would gather to love and honor their mother.
In the early days she had worked with the floral industry to help raise the profile of Mother’s Day. By 1920 she had come to resent what she saw as the commercialization of the day. Greeting cards seemed a pale substitute for the hand written personal notes she envisioned. Jarvis protested a Philadelphia candy maker’s convention in 1923, deriding confectioners, florists and even charities as “profiteers”. Carnations had by this time become symbolic of Mother’s Day. 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.
Soon she was launching an endless series of lawsuits against those she felt had used the name of “Mother’s Day”, in vain.
During the last years of her life, Anna Jarvis lobbied the government to take her creation off 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.
Today, some variation of Mother’s Day is observed from the Arab world to the United Kingdom. In the United States, Mother’s Day is one of the most commercially successful days of the year for flower and greeting card sales, and the biggest day of the year for long-distance phone calls. Church attendance is the third highest of the year behind only Christmas and Easter. Many churchgoers celebrate the day with carnations: colored if the mother is still living and white, if she has passed on.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.