The History of Mother’s Day

Maybe you’re planning to go out to brunch with your mom on Mother’s Day or buy her flowers. Whatever your plans are, you probably don’t know how Mother’s Day came into existence.

The first Mother’s Day celebrations occurred in ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece. In those days, people didn’t honor their human mothers. Instead, they held festivals in honor of goddesses. For example, the Greeks used the occasion to celebrate Rhea, the mother of many other Greek gods.

In seventeenth century England, Mothering Sunday was celebrated each year on the fourth Sunday of Lent (the 40 days of fasting before Easter). Christians honored the church in which they were baptized, known as their Mother Church. Mothering Sunday soon began to honor human mothers, too. British servants and employees who worked far from home received time off to visit their moms and share a family meal.

American colonists didn’t adopt the tradition of Mother’s Day, possibly because they were busy trying to survive in their new homes. The idea of celebrating Mother’s Day in the U.S. began with Julia Ward Howe, who became famous during the Civil War as the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Howe thought wars were a waste of young men’s lives, and she called on mothers to protest the killing of their children in wars. In her Mother’s Day Proclamation, Howe wrote, “we women of one country will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”  In the 1870s, women’s groups in over a dozen American cities observed Howe’s holiday, but the idea didn’t really catch on until the following century.

In 1908, Anna M. Jarvis campaigned for an official Mother’s Day in memory of her own mother, an activist and social worker who hoped that the contributions of mothers would someday be recognized. Anna Jarvis was determined to make her mother’s wish come true. She petitioned the superintendent of the church her mother had attended and on May 10, 1908, the first official Mother’s Day celebration took place at a church service in Grafton, West Virginia. Jarvis gave carnations—her mother’s favorite flower—to each mother at the service. Later Jarvis and her supporters lobbied for the creation of an official Mother’s Day. In 1914 her dream came true when President Wilson declared the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

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