The History of Mother's Day

by Cheri Sicard

While many people might assume that Mother's Day is a holiday invented by the fine folks at Hallmark, it's not so. The earliest Mother's Day celebrations can be traced back to the spring celebrations of ancient Greece, honoring Rhea, the Mother of the Gods. The Romans called their version of the event the Hilaria, and celebrated on the Ides of March by making offerings in the temple of Cybele, the mother of the Gods. Early Christians celebrated the festival on the fourth Sunday of Lent in honor of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ.

In more recent times, relatively speaking -- England in the 1600s--the celebration was expanded to include all mothers with "Mothering Sunday" being celebrated on the 4th Sunday of Lent (the 40 day period leading up to Easter). Besides attending church services in honor of the Virgin Mary, children returned home from the cities with gifts, flowers, and special Mothering Day cakes that were important parts of the celebration.

Mother's Day festivities in the United States date back to 1872 when Julia Ward Howe (who's other claim to fame was writing the lyrics for the "Battle Hymn of the Republic") suggested the day be dedicated to peace. Ms. Howe would hold organized Mother's Day meetings in Boston, Massachusetts ever year.

In 1907, Ana Jarvis, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania school teacher, furthered the cause by beginning a campaign to establish a national Mother's Day. Ms. Jarvis persuaded her mother's church in Grafton, West Virginia to celebrate Mother's Day on the second anniversary of her mother's death, which happened to be on the 2nd Sunday of May that year. By the following year, Mother's Day was also being celebrated in Philadelphia.

Not content to rest on her laurels, Ms. Jarvis and her supporters began to write to ministers, businessman, and politicians in their quest to establish a national Mother's Day and in 1912, the Mother's Day International Association was incorporated for the purpose of promoting the day and its observance. By 1911, Mother's Day was celebrated in almost every state in the nation. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made it official by proclaiming Mother's Day a national holiday that was to be held each year on the 2nd Sunday of May.

It is somewhat ironic that after all her efforts, Ana Jarvis ended up growing bitter over what she perceived as the corruption of the holiday she created. She abhorred the commercialization of the holiday and grew so enraged by it that she filed a lawsuit to stop a 1923 Mother's Day festival and was even arrested for disturbing the peace at a war mothers' convention where women sold white carnations -- Jarvis' symbol for mothers -- to raise money.

Ana Jarvis' story is not a happy one. Things went from bad to worse and she eventually lost everything and everyone that was close to her and died alone in a sanatorium in 1948. Shortly before her death, Jarvis told a reporter she was sorry she had ever started Mother's Day.

Ana may be gone, but Mother's Day lives on, regardless of whether it meets her approval. Many countries throughout the world celebrate Mother's Day at various times throughout the year, but some such as Denmark, Finland, Italy, Turkey, Australia, and Belgium also celebrate Mother's Day on the second Sunday of May.


The story behind Ana Jarvis's mother, one Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis, is just as interesting than the story of Mother's Day itself. The elder Mrs. Jarvis organized a series of "Mother's Work Camps" in West Virginia to improve health and sanitary conditions before the civil war. During the war she declared neutrality for her organizations and regularly aided soldiers in need on both sides of the struggle.

Cheri Sicard is the editor of:
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