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A tale of the (very) unexpected origins of Mother’s Day

Photo courtesy of Idiva

The flow of female monthly blood, birth waters, breast milk. Overworked servants. War; and the ravages thereof. A grief-stricken daughter; her mother’s death anniversary. An asylum. All part and parcel of what has mutated into yet another Hallmark-card, warm-and-fuzzy-in-your-tummy occasion:
Mother’s Day.

Ancient origins: The Great Mothers

The celebration of Mother’s Day can be traced all the way ancient Greece and centuries-old spring festivities (involving flowers, singing, dancing, and copious amounts of wine) in honor of Rhea, the Mother of Gods (she bore Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Aides, Poseidon, and Zeus).

As the goddess of female fertility, motherhood, and generation: Rhea’s name means “flow” and “ease.” She married Kronos (Time), and thereby represented the eternal flow of time and generations. As the Great Mother (Meter Megale), the “flow” was menstrual blood, birth waters, and milk. Rhea was also attributed as the goddess of comfort and ease of living.

It is said that Kronos, in order to thwart a prophecy against him, ate his children. This prompted Rhea to hide her youngest son Zeus; concealing him and keeping him safe in the crevice of a cave, in an act of maternal instinct and love.

The Romans had a similar spring festival, the Hilaria, in honor of the Roman goddess Magna Mater (Great Mother). Dating back to 250 BC, the celebration was made on the Ides of March by making offerings in the temple of Cybele. This lasted for three days and included parades, games and masquerades. And very presumably, copious amounts of wine, as well. The celebrations were notorious enough that followers of Cybele were banished from Rome, so one can only imagine the madness and mayhem that took place in mother’s honor.

Similarly, across Celtic Europe and the British Isles, there was a festival known as Spring Mother’s Day, celebrated in honor of the goddess Brigid, who brought the gift of the sun’s growing light and the abundance of the earth.

Later on in history, circa the early 1600s, the Christian Church in Europe (specifically, England) – in their quest to eliminate all things “pagan” – took the celebration and attributed it to the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ.

Let them eat cake

Not long after, the Christian Church in England broadened the celebration to honor all mothers; an event they called “Mothering Sunday.” Celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent, children brought gifts and flowers to pay tribute to their own mothers, after holding prayer service in homage to the Virgin Mary.

Beneath this seemingly ideal tradition, however, lay a way harsher, much less ideal reality. In those times, many of the England’s poor worked as servants for the wealthy. Most jobs were located far from their homes; hence, the servants – very often overworked and underpaid– would live at the houses of their employers.

On Mothering Sunday, the servants would have the day off and were encouraged to return home and spend the day with their mothers; or return to their children, as the case may have been. A special cake, called the mothering cake, was often brought along to provide a festive touch, and possibly assuage guilt borne from absence.

As Christianity continued to spread throughout Europe, the celebration eventually focused on honoring the “Mother Church,” for Her spiritual, life-giving, protective power. This custom was brought to American shores by the English colonists, but this eventually died out because of the busy-ness of pioneer life and lack of time.

War, carnage, and crusades for peace

America 1858: the ravages and carnage of the Civil War tempered the times. Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, a young Appalachian homemaker from West Virginia, grew tired of the carnage and decided to devote herself to the healing of the nation after the Civil War. She organized and taught women through what she called “Mothers Friendship Day,” mother’s day-work clubs designed to empower women and teach them to establish more sanitary living conditions for their families, as well as to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors. These clubs also tended wounded soldiers of both sides during the US Civil War from 1861 to 1865.

Jarvis was instrumental in saving thousands of lives by instructing women in the basics of nursing and sanitation – things she learned from her famous physician brother James Reeves, M.D. – at her Mothers Friendship Clubs.

At about the same time, and inspired by the efforts of Jarvis, American Civil War social activist Julia Ward Howe (author of lyrics to the Battle hymn of the Republic) devoted her efforts to a peace crusade; passionately making an “appeal to womanhood” to take a firm stand against war. She composed her powerful plea, which came to be known as the Mother’s Day Proclamation, in Boston and later on translated it into several languages and distributed it widely.

It was in 1872, at an international Woman’s Peace Congress in London, that Howe began promoting the idea of a “Mother’s Day for Peace” to be celebrated on June 2, honoring peace, motherhood and womanhood. She actively worked to make the celebration official, although this concept of Mothers Day was primarily for women to stand-up against war. Howe’s efforts came to fruition in Boston, where the Mothers’ Peace Day was observed every second Sunday of June, for a period of 10 years.

A mother’s death, a daughter’s grief

However, Mothers’ Day as we know it – or, more accurately, as we thought we knew it – is credited to Anna Jarvis, daughter of Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis. Anna spent several years looking after her ailing mother, and was terribly grieved by her death in 1905. In 1907, moved by her inconsolable loss, Anna persuaded her mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia to celebrate Mother’s Day on the second anniversary of her mother’s death, the second Sunday of May.

The day was intended to honor her mother; as well as other mothers, living and dead. It was symbolized by Anna Jarvis’s mother’s favorite flower, the white carnation; which came to represent the sweetness, purity and endurance of mother-love. Since then, the red carnation has become the symbol of a living mother, while white signifies that one’s mother has died.

Anna Jarvis pushed for Mother’s Day to be celebrated across America, with the intention of each child celebrating their own mother; an intimate commemoration of love between a mother and her child, hence, the name Mother’s Day, as against the collective Mothers’ Day.

Mother’s Day came to be observed in several US cities and states; and in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially set aside the second Sunday in May for the holiday.

Anna Jarvis’ efforts had paid off. Or so she thought; for in the end, she vehemently wished they hadn’t.



A bitter end

Anna Jarvis’ desire for an intimate Mother’s Day snowballed, against her will, into a lucrative business. Entrepreneurs jumped on the mother-love bandwagon, fueled by commerce and the desire for personal gain. Flowers, candies, greeting cards and the exchange thereof replaced the original spirit of self-sacrifice, honoring fallen sons, and committing to the preservation of peace and life; much to Jarvis’ utter dismay.

In a strange twist of fate, the woman who once pushed for the holiday to be established, now fought to abolish it. She organized boycotts, threatened lawsuits, and went to the extreme of decrying First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day for various fundraising activities.

The younger Jarvis dedicated the remainder of her days – and her hefty inheritance – to returning Mother’s Day to its more significant and reverent heritage. But it was not to be so. Flowers, candies, cards had captured the public eye, and had won-over the collective heart of humanity. The commercialized version of Mother’s day spread like wildfire.

Anna Jarvis died in 1948; defeated, alone, broke, suffering from dementia in a public asylum. She could have used the holiday for personal gain; yet she didn’t. She fought against those; who did, and it cost her everything.

Make it meaningful

There you have it: the tale of the much unexpected origins of Mother’s Day. A tale that may be difficult to digest, but one that hopefully motivates us to make it meaningful, this time around: quality time spent together (maybe work on a scrapbook together, or interview the mothers in your life, you may just find some nuggets of wisdom there); homemade cards and presents; a home-cooked instead of restaurant meal; genuine displays of appreciation and gratitude, for instance.

After all, mothers deserve the real deal. To moms far and wide: may you have a happy, meaningful, Mother’s Day!