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The History of Mother's Day

Mother's Day is a holiday that is celebrated in countries around the world. It is considered to be a day for people to show their mothers how much they are loved and appreciated. It is also a time for women who have borne children to relax and allow themselves to be pampered for a day. Although countries such as Canada and Australia join the U.S. in celebrating Mother's Day on the second Sunday of May, this isn't the case for other countries. Ethiopia, for example, celebrates motherhood for several days in the fall during a celebration called Antrosht. In February, Norway celebrates Mother's Day on the second Sunday of the month. Bulgaria's Mother's Day celebration takes place on the same day as its International Women's Day celebration, which falls annually on March 8. In the U.K., Mothering Sunday takes place on the fourth Sunday of Lent. In the U.S., Mother's Day is an important occasion; however, most people are unaware of the origins of the holiday and what it means. Learning the history of the holiday can heighten one's awareness and appreciation of the day.


In the United States, Mother's Day as it is known today came into existence due to the efforts of three women - two who shared the name Anna Jarvis and one by the name of Julia Ward Howe. In the 19th century, following the Civil War, a West Virginian woman named Anna Reeves Jarvis started what was known as "Mother's Friendship Day." This was a day for mothers of Union soldiers and mothers of Confederate soldiers to reconcile in hopes of peace. Jarvis was not unfamiliar with forming mothers' groups, as prior to the war, she had founded what was known as "Mothers' Day Work Clubs," which were meant to improve poor health conditions and teach women how to care for their children. Two years after "Mother's Friendship Day," a woman by the name of Julia Ward Howe penned the "Mother's Day Proclamation" in 1870. Ward Howe was a suffragist and abolitionist whose proclamation was meant to unite mothers and all women to promote peace and protest sending their sons off to fight and die at war.


It was, however, due to the efforts of Anna Reeves Jarvis' daughter, who was also named Anna, that a movement for a national holiday became a reality. Following the death of her mother, Jarvis wanted a way to celebrate her mother's life and the lives of women in general. She envisioned the holiday as a way to include and honor mothers in what was at the time a highly patriarchal holiday system. In addition, she imagined the day to be a private one between family and the church. Eventually, she gained the financial backing and support of John Wanamaker, who was the owner of a department store located in Philadelphia. With his support, she was able to plan the first Mother's Day celebrations in May 1908. This was not a national holiday, and the celebrations took place only in a handful of cities, including Grafton, Virginia, and Philadelphia. During these and subsequent celebrations, Anna passed out white carnations, which were her mother's favorite flower. In continuing her efforts, she wrote to mayors, governors, newspapers, and even the president of the United States. Eventually, as more cities began to celebrate the holiday, it caught the president's attention, and in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially recognized the second Sunday of May as Mother's Day.


While Jarvis' campaign was responsible for Mother's Day, the holiday's success was largely due to commercialization and conservative concerns about feminism and female roles. The holiday was a way for certain groups to promote the more domestic side of motherhood and the roles of the mother within the family. In terms of the commercialization of Mother's Day, the floral and greeting card industries took to Mother's Day without delay. The floral industry actively promoted flowers for gift-giving and subsequently played a large role in shaping the holiday. Today, flowers are a common and expected gift. Carnations are a commonly given flower for the holiday. White carnations, like the ones that Anna gave out during the first Mother's Day celebrations, were worn by members of the House of Representatives for the first official Mother's Day. The white flowers were also adopted as the holiday's flower for mothers who were deceased. Pink and red carnations are meant to be given as gifts to one's living mother. In addition to flowers, the card industry also latched onto the holiday and used it to promote the giving of cards. In fact, Mother's Day has even been referred to as a "Hallmark holiday," and it boasts the second-highest number of card sales during any given year. Today, Mother's Day has also become one of the busiest days for phone calls, as people across the country call their mothers. Although Jarvis' dreams of having a holiday for mothers came to fruition, it wasn't what she had envisioned or hoped for. The commercialization, in fact, went against her idea of what the holiday should be, and she ultimately was disappointed and fought to have the holiday that she'd worked so hard for removed.


Mother's Day is more complex and interesting than most realize. Its history is one of forward movement for women and a desire for peace. When celebrating the holiday, it is important that mothers are made to feel appreciated. By understanding the history behind the holiday, people can fully show their mothers their gratitude and celebrate the holiday to its fullest.


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Kremp, C. (n.d.). The History of Mother's Day by Kremp. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from

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