Mother’s Day, in one form or another, has been around a long time. In ancient Greece, a celebration honoring mothers occurred every Spring.
In the Middle Ages, a custom called Mothering Sunday began when children, who often left home early to learn a trade or become apprentices, would be released from work every year on the forth Sunday of Lent to attend church with their families. As they returned home, they often took cakes or little gifts to their mothers. This was termed “going a-mothering.” To this day, Mother’s Day in the United Kingdom is celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent.
It was in 1872 that Julia Ward Howe (author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic) suggested the idea of Mother’s Day in the United States.
The cause was taken up by Anna Jarvis, daughter of a Methodist pastor. Jarvis felt the scars of the Civil War could be healed by mothers—and by honoring mothers. She died in 1905 before her dream of establishing a holiday could be fulfilled. But her daughter, also named Anna Jarvis, took up the crusade.
Anna had been deeply influenced by her mother, and she often recalled hearing her mother say that she hoped someone would one day establish a memorial for all mothers, living and dead.
Anna had been particularly touched at age twelve while listening to her mother teach a Sunday school class on the subject “Mothers in the Bible.” Mrs. Jarvis closed the lesson with a prayer to this effect: I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother’s day. There are many days for men, but none for mothers.
Anna never forgot that moment, and at their mother’s graveside service, Anna’s brother Claude heard her say “… by the grace of God, you shall have that Mother’s Day.”
Anna thus began a campaign to establish a national Mother’s Day. She and her supporters began to write a constant stream of letters to ministers, businessmen, politicians and newspaper editors. She spent a fortune trying to attract attention to her idea, and took every opportunity to give speeches, send telegrams, or write articles promoting her cause.
On the second anniversary of her mother’s death, May 12, 1907, Anna led a small tribute to her mother at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Gafton, West Virginia. She donated five hundred white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower, to be worn by everyone in attendance. On this first Mother’s Day service, the pastor used the text, “Woman, behold thy son; Son, behold thy mother.” (John 19:26) That same day a special service was held at the Wannamaker Auditorium in Philadelphia, which could seat no more than a third of the fifteen thousand people who showed up.
After that, things begin to take off. Various states jumped on the bandwagon, officially proclaiming a Mother’s Day each year, and, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially established Mother’s Day a national holiday to be held on the second Sunday of May.
But having succeeded at last, Anna Jarvis soon became embittered by the commercialization of the holiday and turned against it, actually filing a lawsuit to stop a 1923 Mother’s Day festival. She was even arrested for disturbing the peace at a mother’s convention where women sold white carnations.
“This is not what I intended,” Jarvis growled. “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit!”
“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,” she said on another occasion. “And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”
Shortly before her death in 1948, Anna Jarvis, living in a nursing home, received Mother’s Day cards from all around the world. But she told a reporter she was sorry she had ever started the whole thing.
Article Adapted from R.J. Morgan. Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations & Quotes. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000, 578-579.