The History Behind Honoring Mothers on Mother’s Day

Honoring mothers is considered a noble lifelong pursuit, but have you ever wondered how and why honoring mothers evolved to a National Holiday?

In the United States Mother’s Day reportedly started as a way for mourning women to honor fallen soldiers. A “Mother’s Friendship Day” was organized in 1868 to allow mothers of Union and Confederate soldiers to get together.

The “founder” of Mother’s Day that turned into a National Holiday in the U.S., Anna Jarvis, vividly remembered heartfelt acts of motherly love and sacrifice upon her own mother’s death in 1905. During the next few years Anna pursued her goal to honor all mothers. In May 1908, after gaining financial backing from Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker, she organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. At the same time thousands attended a Mother’s Day event at Wanamaker’s retail store in Philadelphia, (which ironically was proof that commercialism and mother’s day celebrations went hand-in-hand from Day One).

Seeing how successful the first two Mother’s Day celebrations had been, Jarvis started a massive letter writing campaign, arguing that American holidays were biased toward male achievements. She wrote to newspapers and prominent politicians, urging the adoption of a special day to honor motherhood. By 1912 many churches, towns and states had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday. Anna’s persistence paid off in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Her vision of Mother’s Day had been of a day of personal celebration between mothers and families, which involved wearing a white carnation as a badge while visiting one’s mother or attending church services together. It was in those early days that Carnations were often sold for Mother’s Day to fund charities

Ironically, Anna Jarvis remained unmarried and childless her whole life,  but by the time of her death in 1948, Jarvis had spent most of her personal wealth fighting the holiday she helped conceive. She apparently found the commercialization of the day deplorable and sued groups that used the “Mother’s Day” name to promote consumerism. She even lobbied the government to remove it from the U.S.’ official calendar. Unfortunately she never regained control over Mother’s Day in her lifelong struggle.

But today the Mother’s Day holiday is celebrated all over the world. Anna had first imagined, then proclaimed that a special day of formal recognition for motherhood should become a forever testimonial. She witnessed a special birth in May 1914 when the official U.S. holiday we celebrate today was born. Happy Mother’s Day.

PERSONAL NOTE: My mother knew at the age of twenty one that she could not have children. She was selfless and gave unconditional love to three children whom she chose for a lifetime, as well as several foster children. As adoptees, we were told our whole lives that we were “chosen” and that she knew that any biological children would not have been as special. You know, I think she was correct. We WERE special- because of her. Miss you, Mama. ❤️

Nancy Shores

Celebrations of mothers and motherhood can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who held festivals in honor of the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele, but the clearest modern precedent for Mother’s Day is the early Christian festival known as “Mothering Sunday.” Once a major tradition in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, this celebration fell on the fourth Sunday in Lent and was originally seen as a time when the faithful would return to their “mother church”—the main church in the vicinity of their home—for a special service. Over time the Mothering Sunday tradition shifted into a more secular holiday, and children would present their mothers with flowers and other tokens of appreciation. This custom eventually faded in popularity before merging with the American Mother’s Day in the 1930s and 1940s.