Mother’s Day is a time for flowers, fancy brunches, and thanking your mum for putting up with your crap for all these years. But once upon a time the holiday was a more somber affair — a way for women to mourn fallen soldiers and pursue peace.
The modern version of Mother’s Day in the U.S. isn’t the first holiday to celebrate mothers and motherhood in the world — not by a long shot. These types of celebrations go back at least as far as the ancient Greeks and Romans, with festivals held in honour of the goddesses Cybele and Rhea. However, these age-old celebrations — and others, like the Christian festival “Mothering Sunday” — actually have nothing to do with the Mother’s Day we have now.
The true origin dates back to the years leading up to the U.S. Civil War, when a woman named Ann Reeves Jarvis helped start “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” in West Virginia. Their goal was to lower infant mortality rates by teaching local women how to properly care for their children, improve sanitary conditions, and fight disease. When war finally broke out in 1861, the groups began tending the wounds of soldiers from both sides. By 1868, after the Civil War was over, Jarvis transformed the organisation into a peace-focused movement called “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” which involved bringing former Union and Confederate soldiers together to reconcile. Jarvis, often called “Mother Jarvis,” wrote:
“Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone bear and know the cost?”
Around the same time, other women around the country organised their own early Mother’s Days. Abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in 1870, which called on all mothers to unite and promote world peace. She later campaigned for a holiday called “Mother’s Peace Day” to be celebrated every June 2. And Juliet Calhoun Blakely, a temperance activist from Michigan, inspired a local Mother’s Day to be celebrated there in the 1870s.
But it wasn’t until the early 1900s that Mother’s Day was nationally recognised. Anna Jarvis, the daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis, pushed for the holiday after her mother died in 1905, wanting a holiday that honours all of the sacrifices mothers make for their children. In 1908, Jarvis found financial backing to host an official Mother’s Day celebration at a church in West Virginia. At the same time, a celebration happened at a retail store in Philadelphia that belonged to Jarvis’ financial backer.
It was a sensation, so Jarvis decided to make it her goal to get the holiday added to the national calendar. By 1912, Jarvis quit her job and started the Mother’s Day International Association, which formed partnerships with local businesses and ran letter-writing campaigns to government officials. It worked. Towns and churches in several states adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday, and by 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made it an official holiday in 1914.
Unfortunately, the holiday quickly went commercial. In fact, Jarvis grew to detest the celebration she’d spent her life championing. Any control she had over the holiday was gone, and by 1920 she did a complete 180. To Jarvis, the day was supposed to be about sentiment, not making money. She turned her back on the local businesses that helped her and began urging people not to buy flowers, cards, and other gifts for their mum. She called anyone who tried to profit off of the day “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.” She fought against charities that used Mother’s Day for fundraising, she was arrested for disturbing the peace when she tried to stop the sale of carnations, and there are even stories of her ordering a “Mother’s Day Salad” at a restaurant, then dumping it on the floor before walking out in a huff.
Eventually, Jarvis even tried to abolish Mother’s Day completely. She spent her last active years going door-to-door asking for signatures to petition and rescind Mother’s Day. She’d rather it had gone away completely then become a driving engine of corporate greed.
This Mother’s Day, focus on what the holiday is really about: honouring the work your mother did and all the sacrifices she made for you. Spend time with your mum if you can, or give her a call. Gifts are fine, but don’t forget to show her some real love with your sentiments.