The Origins of Mother’s Day

By James Clapham

Mother’s Day is coming on May 10, so it’s time to make sure that those cards, flowers, chocolates and wine are all ready to be given away freely. The Mother’s Day as we know it here in Canada started out in the United States in the early 20th century and is not directly related to the thousands of years of celebrations of mothers and motherhood in older civilizations, such as the Christian Mothering Sunday celebration. Here’s a little sample of how it all came to be:

  • A choice of Mother’s Day: This holiday is celebrated all over the world and is found to be mostly in the months of March or May. There isn’t a global fixed day, but it is associated with other celebrations of family members, such as Father’s Day and Siblings Day. People who are only children need not apply, because they know they’re awesome.
  • How did it all come about, then?: Anna Jarvis’s campaign to make Mother’s Day a recognized holiday started way back in 1905, the year her mother died. She decided to make it her mission to honour Ann Jarvis, Anna’s mother, by continuing the work that she had started and to set aside a day to honour mothers. Ann Jarvis was a peace activist who had cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War. Through Anna’s efforts, in 1914 Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation creating Mother’s Day, a national holiday held on the second Sunday in May.
  • And then she decided she didn’t like it: Jarvis soon became resentful of the commercialisation and profiteering that companies would make from the holiday. She believed that it missed the point entirely, even to the point of protesting against, as she saw it, the exploitation of Mother’s Day. Jarvis organised boycotts and threatened lawsuits against the commercialisation. Her vision for the holiday had been for people to write a personal letter by hand to their mothers, expressing love and gratitude, rather than buying pre-made cards and gifts. Eventually Jarvis was arrested for disturbing the peace, after protesting at an American War Mothers meeting which wanted to raise money by selling Mother’s Day carnations. Jarvis died in 1948, sadly regretting what she had started.
  • Other people did like it, though: The celebration was globally deemed to be a good idea, so the holiday was adopted by many different countries and changed according to the culture to fit into existing celebrations, such as Mothering Sunday in the United Kingdom, or Virgin Mary Day in Catholic countries. International Women’s Day is celebrated in ex-communist countries, usually in lieu of Mother’s Day. However some, like Russia, celebrate both days.
  • Some French-related trivia: In France, there were attempts in the 1896 and 1904 to create a national celebration honouring mothers of large families. This was also an anti-depopulation effort since the birth rate back then was alarmingly low. In 1906 ten mothers who had nine children each were given an award recognising High Maternal Merit. First World War American soldiers fighting in France popularized Mother’s Day to the point that a postal card was created just for that purpose.
  • Some UK-related trivia: In the UK, Mothering Sunday is celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent. This holiday has roots in the church, where mothers were reunited with their children when young apprentices and women were released by their masters for that weekend. Eventually the Industrial Revolution was the chief cause of decline and it wasn’t until after the arrival of American troops for the Second World War (see a theme here?) that Mother’s Day merged with Mothering Sunday traditions. It was helped once again by renewed commercial interest in the 1950s, something that Jarvis would have been against but it is what kept it going for so long.