Mother’s Day: A Surprising History

I’m sad to report that as with many holidays, the origin story of Mother’s Day is a dark one… And the nineteenth century was twisted times, y’all!

Celebrations of motherhood can actually be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who honored their mother goddesses with festivals, and an early form of Mother’s Day known as “Mothering Sunday” was celebrated as a major tradition in the UK and Europe before fading in popularity.  However, the modern version of Mother’s Day that we all participate in can be attributed to Anna Jarvis, daughter of Anne Reeves Jarvis.

Anne Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia was quite the woman. She helped start “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” to address public health issues and teach women how to care for their kids, and in 1868, organized a “Mother’s Friendship Day,” where mothers would gather with former Union and Confederate soldiers to help promote a reconciliation in the South.

When Anne Reeves Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter Anna was inspired to start Mother’s Day as a way to honor the sacrifices that mothers make. In 1908, she organized the first official Mother’s Day in a West Virginia Methodist church. With the financial backing of a Philadelphia department store owner, her holiday was a great success and she became determined to see it added to the national calendar. Over the next six years, her holiday gained steam and persistence paid off in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson officially assigned it to the second Sunday in May.  

However, things soon took an ugly turn when companies like Hallmark caught on and the dirty commercialization of the holiday spread like wildfire. By the 1920’s, Hallmark had started selling Mother’s Day cards and Jarvis fumed at the notion that profit was being put before honor and sentiment. Her vision for the holiday involved handmade cards and letters expressing true gratitude for mom, not cheesy chocolates and store-bought stationary. Jarvis even ended up protesting at a candy makers’ convention and was arrested for disturbing the peace. She spent the rest of her days raging against what had become of her holiday.

She never ended up getting married or having kids of her own, and she spent her twilight years in a mental asylum. Because that’s where they put you as a “hysterical” woman back in the day. And furthermore, the people paying the bills to keep her in the sanitarium were those connected with the floral and greeting card industries … I don’t make this stuff up, people! It’s a real conspiracy and you can read more about her sad life here, where I also found this awesome Anna Jarvis quote:

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”

This year, in honor of the Jarvises, I will not be asking for anything material for Mother’s Day. In place of candy, flowers, and jewelry, I’m asking for for the one thing that is most illusive to us single working mamas: TIME OFF! A single nap would be the most lovely and luxurious thing I could imagine, and I’m putting it out to the universe  to see if my nap wish is granted…

Happy Mother’s Day!

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