Mother's Day

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1913 advertisement in the Boston Globe

In the United States, Mother's Day is held on the second Sunday in May. Customs include churchgoing,[1] presenting mothers with gifts or taking them out to dinner, and wearing carnations (brightly-colored for living mothers, white in memory of deceased mothers). Mother's Day often honors both mothers and grandmothers alike, as all grandmothers are mothers themselves as well.

It is the holiday on which the largest number of telephone calls are placed, the second most popular holiday dining out occasion,[2] and the fifth highest consumer spending season: $11.43 billion in 2006.[3] A 2006 survey showed that 85% of all consumers planned to celebrate Mother's Day, and to spend an average of $120. About 85% planned to buy greeting cards, 70% flowers, 60% a meal at a restaurant, 30% clothing, 30% jewelry, and 30% gift certificates.[4]


Mother's Day was first celebrated on a large scale in the churches and Sunday schools of Philadelphia in 1908. The founder of Mother's Day was Anna Jarvis (1864-1948), whose mother had died on May 9, 1905. Jarvis' mother, Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis (1832-1905) had been a pillar of the local community. Her life revolved around the Andrews Methodist Church, which she helped to build. She had organized a series of "Mothers' Day Work Clubs" devoted to improving health and sanitation in area towns;[5] these clubs assisted both Union and Confederate encampments in combating an outbreak of typhoid fever, and conducted a "Mothers' Friendship Day" to help in reconciling families divided by the Civil War.[6] As a memorial, her daughter dedicated her life to the establishment and promotion of a national, and then an international Mother's Day.

In 1907, at her behest, the Andrews Methodist Church of Grafton, West Virginia to hold a "Mother’s Day service," which is sometimes regarded as the "first celebration of Mother's Day," and donated five hundred carnations for the mothers in the congregation to wear. Next year, the church officially proclaimed the date to be Mother’s Day, and Grafton florists sold out of carnations.[7] A 1915 book says that while planning the service,

there came to her a realization of the growing lack of tender consideration for absent mothers among worldly-minded, busy, grown-up children; of the thoughtless neglect of home ties and loving consideration, engendered by the whirl and pressure of modern life; of the lack of respect and deference to parents among children of the present generation; and of the need for a reminder of the loving, unselfish mother, living or dead.[8]

Jarvis sought to make it a national celebration. It was not smooth going at first; in 1908 the Senate poked fun at a resolution to institute Mothers' Day.[9] One senator feared it would lead to special days in honor of "sisters and the cousins and the aunts,",[10] another moved to substitute the Fifth Commandment, and another said that if it passed the Senate should also recognize a Grandmothers' Day.[11] Nevertheless, the tradition spread to other cities, and by 1910 it had been adopted by most states.[12] In 1913 the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for federal officials to wear white carnations on Mother's Day.

In 1914, a bill instituting Mother's Day was passed, and on May 8, 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed House Joint Resolution 263, "A joint resolution designating the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day, and for other purposes." WIlson issued a proclamation "calling upon the Government officials to display the United States flag on all Government buildings, and the people of the United States to display the flag at their homes or other suitable places on the second Sunday in May, as a public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country."[8]

Originally, the celebration was observed mostly at churches, but it soon expanded to public gatherings, somewhat on the pattern of Independence Day or Memorial Day.[13] Boston's 1923 celebration of Mother's Day honored the sacrifices of the Gold Star mothers who had lost sons in World War I. It included a parade and speeches on the Common. "M. Schalk" of the Rotary Club led the assembled crowd in singing "Mother Machree," "The Long Long Trail," and "Home Sweet Home." The chaplain of the American Legion led a prayer, followed by speeches by the Lieutenant Governor, Mayor James M. Curley, and screen actress Mary Carr, famous for her film portrayal of mothers.[14]

Founder Anna Jarvis continued to guide the celebration in her role as President of the Mothers' Day International Association, declaring in 1920, for example, that on that year white carnations would be dispensed with due to the high cost of the flowers. But the celebration gradually evolved into its present form: primarily an occasion for gifts, greeting cards, and telephone calls. Jarvis herself eventually became bitter at the extent to which the celebration had become commercialized.[15] The New York Times says that she "denounced confectioners, florists, and other groups whom she accused of gouging the public" and was angered because "too many sons bought printed cards to send to their mothers, instead of writing."[16]

In 1962, the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church of Grafton, West Virginia— location of the 1907 Mother's Day service—became rededicated as the International Mother's Day Shrine.[17]

Other "Mother's Days"

Woman and child.jpg

Mother's Day is a celebration honoring mothers and celebrating motherhood, maternal bonds and the influence of mothers in society. It is celebrated on various days in many parts of the world, yet most commonly in March, April, or May. It complements Father's Day, the celebration honoring fathers. In most countries Mother's Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in May, among them the USA, Canada, Brazil, most European countries, Australia, New Zealand, India, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and South Africa. One notable exception to this rule are the UK and Ireland, which celebrate Mother's Day on the fourth Sunday in Lent. Most Arab countries celebrate Mother's Day on March 21st (vernal equinox). Most East European countries celebrate Mother's Day on March 8th. [1] El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico celebrate Mother's Day on May 10. Russia the Last Sunday of November.

"Mothering Sunday"

Mother's Day may be related to Mothering Sunday, celebrated in England on the fourth Sunday of Lent. The term did not originally refer to motherhood. On Mothering Sunday, English Catholics instead of attending services in the local parish church, were supposed to travel to their "Mother Church," i.e. the cathedral of the diocese. Later, it became an occasion for children to visit their parents.[18] An 1854 source says the change occurred at the time of the Reformation. It mentions a couplet:

On Mothering Sunday, above all other
Every child should dine with its mother.[19]

An 1867 source, however, says that "the processions ceased in the thirteenth century, but the name Mothering Sunday has continued, and throughout many parts of England this title has been the cause of the Sunday being the great family gathering, when all the scattered members return home and spend the day, and bring a present to their mother." The traditional gift was a "simnel cake" made of flour colored with saffron and flavored with sugar and lemon. Even in 1867, commercialism had raised its ugly head: the source complains that "the beauty of the custom is now lost by the simnel cakes being sold in shops."[20]

In recent years, the observance of Mothering Sunday has come to resemble that of Mother's Day in the U. S., and is often referred to as "Mother's Day."

Julia Ward Howe's June 2nd "Mother's Day"

Julia Ward Howe, author of Battle Hymn of the Republic, had earlier attempted to found a "Mother's Day" to be celebrated on June 2. It was not a celebration of motherhood, but a call for mothers to oppose war. Her 1870 Appeal to Womanhood Through the World said, in part:

Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly: "We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience...." From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!.[21]

Howe's Mother's Day was celebrated in eighteen cities in 1873, and in Boston for at least ten years; but it was dependent on Howe's personal financial sponsorship and eventually died out.[22]

In recent years, there have been attempts to associate Anna Jarvis' Mother's Day with Howe's antiwar message. In 1991 the Boston Globe reported that "the descendants of Julia Ward Howe are asking mothers and children across the nation today to cast aside the sappy sentiment, candy and cards that often characterize Mother's Day and to try instead to revive the day's original meaning."[23] In fact, there appears to be a sort of myth that the modern celebration traces back to Howe's and was gradually co-opted by the forces of sentimentality: "Today's hearts-and-flowers approach to Mother's Day would have appalled its founder, famed American poet Julia Ward Howe," wrote the Springfield, Massachusetts Union-News in 2001.[24]

Reactions to Mother's Day


As noted, the Senate's reaction to Jarvis's proposal was initially cool. And although Mother's Day was enthusiastically adopted by the nation, there were demurrals.

Scarcely had the ink dried on Wilson's proclamation when a letter signed "Justice" appeared in the New York Times complaining that "Ever since the beginning of the Mother's Day movement I have felt that an injustice has been done—unintentionally, of course—to our fathers. There are many fathers who are worthy of honor as well as mothers. Therefore, we should celebrate a day for Father's Day."[25] This drew an ironic reply a few days later from correspondent "More Justice," suggesting the addition of Brother's Day, Sister's Day, Grandpa's Day, Grandma's Day, Uncle's Day, Maiden Aunty's Day, Cousin's Day, Baby's Day, Household Pet Day, and "Slush Day," with suggested dates and buttonhole flowers for each.[26]

During the 1920s and 1930s, there were rallies in New York's Central Park for the cause of renaming Mother's Day to "Parents' Day." The movement, led by one Robert Spere, died out in 1940; an historian suggests that the business community killed it, because "Mother's Day followed by Father's Day was too perfect a setup financially to allow something as gender-nonspecific as Parent's Day to muck things up."[27]

In 1935 Will Rogers remarked:

Mother's Day, it's a beautiful thought, but it's somebody's hurtin' conscience that thought of the idea. It was someone who had neglected their mother for years, and then they figured out: I got to do something about Momma. And knowing that Momma was that easy, they figured, "we'll give her a day, and it will be all right with Momma." Give her a day, and then in return Momma gives you the other 364. See?[28][29]

Political and social

Mothers day gift.jpg

Anna Jarvis' efforts to establish Mother's Day coincided with a period of activity in support of women's suffrage. An historian says that "Opponents of woman suffrage eagerly adopted Anna’s cause as their own." One Mother's Day sermon said that "The mother who spends six years with her children will know far more than the woman who neglects her duty in that way for social and political matters." Jarvis' champion in the Senate was Alabama senator J. Thomas Heflin:

Known as "Cotton Tom" because of his devotion to Alabama's leading agricultural commodity, the flamboyant Heflin built a political career as an unremitting opponent of equal rights for black Americans, women, and Roman Catholics... While firmly against giving the vote to women, Heflin believed they would be grateful for his role in establishing Mother's Day as a national holiday.[30]

But Jarvis herself supported women's suffrage, and some of her own statements had at least a tinge of feminism:

Washington's Birthday is for the "Father of our Country;" Memorial Day for our "Heroic Fathers;" 4th of July for "Patriot Fathers;" Labor Day for "Laboring Fathers;" Thanksgiving day for "Pilgrim Father[s];" and even New Years Day is for "Old Father Time."[28]

In recent years, there have been rare incidents of schools deciding to discontinue Mother's Day observances on the grounds that it is an uncomfortable occasion for children living without a mother. In 2001, the Rodeph Shalom Day School in New York announced that Mother's Day and Father's Day would not be celebrated, in part because "...families in our society are now diverse and varied.... the recognition of these holidays in a social setting may not be a positive experience for all children.".[31] A mother at the school, who supported the policy, said that (contrary to a newspaper report), it did not seem likely that the impetus for the policy had come from gay parents.[32] In 2007, a primary school in Wales banned the making of Mother's Day cards in class on the grounds of sensitivity. A spokesperson for the Mothers’ Union responded that they thought the school should, instead, encourage each child "to make a card which thanks the person in their lives who does that mothering. That could be a dad, auntie, carer, foster mum or grandparent."[33]

Notes and references

  1. Kalas, J. Ellsworth (2004), Preaching the Calendar: Celebrating Holidays and Holy Days, (p. 76), "church attendance on this day is likely to be third only to Christmas Eve and Easter"
  2. "Father's Day vs. Mother's Day," The Boston Herald, June 20, 1999
  3. Billions of USD: Halloween $3.29; St. Patrick's Day $3.80; Father's Day $8.23; Super Bowl $8.70; Mother's Day $11.43; Easter $14.37; Valentine's Day $16.90; Back to School/College $54.20; Winter Holidays[sic] $457.40. Annual Report, National Retail Federation: .xls file at "Consumer Holiday Spending Pie Chart" link
  4. Annual Report, National Retail Federation: .pdf file at "Mothers Day 2006" link. Total does not add to 100% because of multiple purchases.
  5. Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis, West Virginia State Archives
  6. The Mother of Mother's Day, rootsweb
  7. Johnson, James P. (1979), "How Mother Got Her Day,", American Heritage, 30(1), April/May 1979: (Anna Reeves Jarvis' death on second Sunday of 1905, first "Mother's Day service" at Andrews Memorial Church of Grafton, Va, florists selling out of carnations the following year)
  8. 8.0 8.1 Rice, Susan Tracey and Robert Haven Schauffler (1915), Mother's Day: Its History, Origin, Celebration, Spirit, and Significance as Related in Prose and Verse. New York: Moffat, Yard and Company. Anna Jarvis and Philadelphia, p. 6; Mother's Day bill in Congress, pp. 4-5
  9. The position of the apostrophe varies; older sources tend to put it after the s, modern usage puts it before the s.
  10. Doubtless a reference to a song in H. M. S. Pinafore, in which the head of the Navy goes everywhere accompanied by "his sisters and his cousins and his aunts." The senator's objection is a good example of a slippery slope argument.
  11. Against a Mothers'[sic] Day. Senate Pokes Fun at Senator Burkett's Resolution Calling For One. The New York Times, May 10, 1908, p. 7
  12. "Mothers'[sic] Day" The Boston Daily Globe, May 11, 1911, p. 12: "On Sunday next Mothers' day will be celebrated for the second time in the United States.... [The suggestion of] Miss Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia that a day be set aside for throughout the country to honor mothers was quickly adopted in most states."
  13. Then called "Decorations Day"
  14. "Tributes to 'Mother' Paid On Common After Parade in Downtown Boston," The Boston Daily Globe, May 14, 1923, p. 18
  15. Who came up with Mother's Day and why? HowStuffWorks website: "Jarvis became bitter over the commercialization of the holiday. She filed a lawsuit to stop a 1923 Mother's Day event and was even arrested for disturbing the peace at a mother's convention where white carnations were being sold."
  16. "Anna Jarvis Dead; Honored Mothers; Founder in 1907 of Their Day Fought Commercialization—Penniless at Her Death." The New York Times, November 25, 1948, p. 31
  17. The International Mother's Day Shrine
  18. Mothering Sunday, BBC
  19. Baker, Anne Elizabeth (1854), Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases," J. R. Smith, p. 33
  20. E. Littel's Living Age, Fourth Series, Volume VI, July, August, September 1867; Boston, Littell and Gay. p. 725
  21. Elliott, Maud (Howe) and Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards (1915), Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, p. 302
  22. Julia Ward Howe's Mother's Day for Piece,
  23. Gaines, Judith, "A Call to Work for Peace: Kin of Julia Ward Howe Rekindle Her Original Goal for Mother's Day, The Boston Globe,, May 12, 1991, p. 36
  24. Carbone, Angela (2001), "Hamp sets tribute to Julia Howe; 'Battle Hymn' author founded Mother's Day." May 11, 2001, p. B04
  25. "A Fathers' Day" Suggested. The New York Times, June 11, 1914, p. 10
  26. "Holidays for All: Including Grandma, Aunty, Baby, and the Household Pet." The New York Times, June 14, 1914, p. 14
  27. LaRossa, Ralph (1997), The Modernization of Fatherhood: A Social and Political History, University of Chicago Press, p. 26
  28. 28.0 28.1 Frank, Catherine, (2003) Quotations for All Occasions, Columbia University Press, p. 25: Anna Jarvis quotation, #15, p. 25; Will Rogers, #16, p. 26
  29. If Rogers was not speaking figuratively when he referred to the person who "thought up the idea," then he was being unfair to Anna Jarvis, who was devoted to her mother and stayed with her mother long into her own adulthood.
  30. Cotton Tom's Last Blast, United States Senate website, "Historical Minutes" section
  31. Goldberg, Jonah (2001), My School Bans Mother’s Day. National Review Online, May 8, 2001.
  32. "Bulletin Board, School Skips Mother's Day," The New York Times, May 9, 2001, p. B9
  33. School bans Mother's Day cards. "The move has angered parents at the 357-pupil Johnstown Primary School in Carmarthen, West Wales."