2009-05-06 / Features

The Story Of Mother's Day


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, LC-USZ62-63369] Anna Jarvis was the founder of Mother's Day. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, LC-USZ62-63369] Anna Jarvis was the founder of Mother's Day. Our observance of Mother's Day is little more than half a century old, yet the nature of the holiday makes it seem as if it had its roots in prehistoric times. Many antiquarians, holiday enthusiasts, and students of folklore have claimed to find the source of Mother's Day in the ancient spring festivals dedicated to the mother goddesses, particularly the worship of Cybele. Her cult was introduced into Rome some 250 years before the birth of Christ and rites were performed for three days from the Ides of March. This festival was known as the Hilaria. The Hilaria was a religious holiday; our Mother's Day basically is not.

More closely aligned to Mother's Day is "Mothering Sunday", also called Mid- Lent Sunday, observed on the fourth Sunday in Lent.

No doubt the change in working and living habits brought about by the Industrial Revolution had much to do with the decline of Mothering Sunday in England. However, interest in the day has revived, and it is once again an established holiday. Some people are of the opinion that the great popularity of Mother's Day in the United States resulted in a new lease on life for Mothering Sunday.

Anna M. Jarvis, who lived from May 1, 1864, to Nov. 24, 1948, was the originator of our Mother's Day.

She remained a spinster throughout her life and was extremely attached to her mother, Mrs. Anna Reese Jarvis, a minister's daughter who for 20 years conducted Sunday school classes in the Andrews Methodist Church of Grafton, West Virginia. Anna M. Jarvis graduated from a female seminary in Wheeling and taught in Grafton for a while before moving, with the rest of her family, to Philadelphia.

Anna Reese Jarvis, her mother, died in Philadelphia on May 9, 1905, and two years later Anna M. Jarvis discussed with friends her intention of starting a Mother's Day.

She was reportedly very concerned about the neglectful treatment of mothers by adult children. She therefore inaugurated a letter-writing campaign, contacting ministers, businessmen, and congressmen in the hopes of gaining their support for her project.

The first Mother's Day observance was a church service held at Anna Jarvis' request in Grafton, West Virginia, on May 10, 1908 (another service was also conducted in Philadelphia on the same date). Dr. H.C. Howard was the minister. This was not strictly a Mother's Day service in honor of motherhood, but rather paid homage to Mrs. Jarvis.

The carnations which have become such a familiar part of Mother's Day were introduced and supplied at that first service by Anna Jarvis. They were chosen because of her mother's fondness for them. The flowers were immediately accepted as appropriate for the occasion. Jane Steward, a lecturer and editor, wrote, soon after the first Mother's Day: "Large jars of white carnations (the floral emblem of mother-love, because of its sweetness, purity and endurance) are set about the platform. These fragrant flowers may be the gift of those who have lost their mothers or of those who wish in this way to show respect and honor to mothers at a distance. And at the close of the exercises one of these white carnations is given to each person present as an appropriate souvenir of Mother's Day."

Red carnations in time became the symbol of a living mother, while white ones were worn as a sign that one's mother had died.

The first Mother's Day proclamation was issued by the governor of West Virginia in 1910. Oklahoma celebrated it that same year, and as far west as the state of Washington, Governor Marion E. Hay said: "I urge that, on that day, all persons wear a white flower in acknowledgment and honor of the one who went down into the valley of the shadow of death for us." By 1911 there was not a state in the Union that did not have its own observances. It was also being celebrated in Mexico, Canada, South America, China, Japan and Africa.

The Mother's Day International Association was incorporated on December 12, 1912, with the purpose of promoting and encouraging meaningful observances of the event.

On May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson issued his Mother's Day Proclamation:

Whereas, by a joint resolution approved May 8, 1914, "designating the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day, and for other purposes", the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the government officials to display the United States flag on all government buildings, and the people of the United States to display the flag at their homes or other suitable places on the second Sunday in May as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mother's of our country:

AND WHEREAS, by the said joint resolution it is made the duty of the President to request the observance of the second Sunday in May as provided for in the said Joint Resolution

Now, therefore, I, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the said Joint Resolution, do hereby direct the government officials to display the United States flag on all government buildings and do invite the people of the United States to display the flag at their homes or other suitable places on the second Sunday in May as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.

Mother's Day today is observed in the United States on the second Sunday in May. Each year a similar proclamation has been issued by the president.

It is perhaps ironic that the woman who had such a hand in establishing Mother's Day was never herself a mother. Rather than marry, Anna Jarvis attended to her own mother for years, and when she died, took on the care of her blind sister, Elsinore.

While honored for her part in the growth of the holiday (she was sent to Zurich, Switzerland, in 1913 as a delegate to the seventh World's Sunday School Convention), Anna Jarvis soon became disillusioned with her own creation. What had begun as a religious service expanded quickly into a more secular observance which included the giving of flowers, cards and gifts.

It is unfortunate that she was unable to accept the inevitable "commercialism", for the spirit of the day—an honoring of mothers—continues to carry out her original intention. As the holiday slipped from her control, so did her personal life fall into disrepair. She lost her property, her sister died, and Anna Jarvis herself began to lose her sight. In November 1944 she was ill and without money. Friends paid her expenses at a sanitarium in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She died there in 1948.

Today, Mother's Day is a popular occasion, warm and joyful in spirit. Naturally enough, however, what was begun as a religious service has expanded into a secular, and commercially successful, event.

Flowers and gifts are often the order of the day, and greetings are designed to be sent, not only to one's own mother, but also to grandmothers, aunts, mothers of wives and sweethearts, and for that matter, to anyone who merits the accolades of motherhood.

In the United States and Canada the week from the first Sunday in May to Mother's Day has been set aside as Christian Family Week. The National Council of Churches has stated that the purpose is "to provide additional motivation for home and church cooperation".

Return to top

Copyright 1999-2018 The Service Advertising Group, Inc. All rights reserved.