Sunday was Mother’s Day, one of the most widely observed and celebrated holidays in our culture. People of all ethnic groups, colors, and even religious denominations observe it; among Christians it is the day with the 3rd highest church attendance after only Christmas and Easter. As a major holiday it is all over our popular culture. TV shows have plots that revolve around it. There are songs about both the day and the person known as “Mother” in just about every genre, and radio stations play many of them in the week leading up to the holiday. Comedians tell endless “mom” jokes. Even politicians refer to it in political ads, thanking their own moms and trying to appeal to the moms of voters. And as it is a major holiday, it is very commercialized and has a huge economic impact. It is one of the biggest days in any given year for the sales of flowers, candy, and greeting cards. More long distance calls are made on Mother’s Day than on any other day. Restaurants make a lot of money on the day, especially on breakfasts and brunches. It is truly a big deal in our culture. But where did this day come from? How did it come to be? Why does it exist?
The idea of honoring “mothers” is not just an American idea, and it is not really recent. Ancient peoples in many parts of the world had a variety of observances that paid tribute to the idea of fertility, birth, and mothering. The ancient Greeks and Romans had festivals that celebrated Mother Goddesses such as Rhea and Cybele, who gave birth to various gods and represented the power of divine fertility. These were important, powerful ideas, and the celebrations of these holidays lasted for days in the ancient world.
Roman, Greek and many other polytheistic religions were eventually eclipsed by monotheistic ones. But many of these important ideas found ways of being expressed in monotheistic beliefs. While there is no “Mother’s Day” in Islam, children are regularly instructed to pay honor to their mothers. Some Jews honor Rachel, Jacob’s most beloved wife, on the eleventh day of Cheshvan as the symbolic “mother” of the Israeli household and nation. Some early Christians took to celebrating the Virgin Mary during Lent as a way of honoring a divine mother-the mother of Jesus. The idea of “birth” and “mother,” then, are important human concerns. These need to be accounted for and recognized in every religion.
In 16th century England that recognition turned into something called, “Mothering Sunday.” Initially a day to honor the Mother Church and the Virgin Mary, it eventually came to include children being told to pick wild flowers to give to and pay tribute to their own earthly mothers. This represented an expansion of focus; not only divine mothers were looked at with honor. Earthly mothers came to be seen as representatives of the divine order, and they could be acknowledged also. The American idea of Mother’s Day draws most directly from this.
Two women, Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis, are considered the "mothers" of our present celebration of Mother’s Day. Howe, an activist on many social issues and the composer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, wanted a day for women to be listened to as a way to establish peace. Women gave birth to all the men who died in wars on either side, she argued, so they had a special need to both be active and be listened to as a way of ending war. In her famous “Mother’s Day Proclamation” (1870) she argued for and later established a “Mother’s Peace Day” to be celebrated each year. The idea caught on and was observed in several parts of the United States. But it did not grow to be a national holiday. Perhaps it was too political.
Anna Jarvis, born in West Virginia, had a beloved mother who was deeply religious and involved in social issues via her church. Ann Reeves Jarvis had worked as a nurse during the Civil War, and like Howe, she believed in peace. She once spoke about wishing for a day when the work and contributions of mothers to humanity would be recognized and celebrated. Anna remembered this, and it inspired her. In 1908, 3 years after her mother’s death, she sponsored a memorial service in the town of Grafton, West Virginia for her mom and all the moms who attended the service. She also provided white carnations, now the symbol of Mother’s Day, for all the mothers who attended the service. Her mother’s words had become a mission for Anna; mothers needed to be recognized. After the memorial service she began to organize nationally. She called on people to write legislators and influential people to encourage them to lobby for a day to honor all mothers. And somehow, state by state, it began to happen. By 1911 most states in the country had some type of yearly holiday recognizing mothers. She and her supporters then turned their attention to the national stage. Again, it worked. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation that established the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day throughout the nation. Anne Reeve Jarvis’ wish had become reality.
Mother’s Day is a major part of US culture now, and it is firmly established. Ironically, Jarvis came to dislike Mother’s Day, or more specifically, the way it came to be celebrated. The commercialization of the day, first by the greeting card industry and then florists and candy manufacturers, angered her. She spoke out against this regularly, and even considered trying to rescind the holiday. A further irony was that as she aged, Jarvis needed hospital care. It was people connected to the greeting card and florist industries who paid for her hospital stays in West Chester, PA. She died in 1948 and is buried locally in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd.
Regardless of what one thinks about how the day is observed these days, Mother’s Day has become an important day in our culture and in the lives of many people. And it resonate with the same reasons the ancients celebrated all those centuries ago. We all begin with a birth; that is how we start. Yes, sperm and egg need to unite to bring that birth about. And there are many ways the uniting of those two can happen. But when you come down to it, we are all ultimately the result of a mother carrying and delivering us. It has been that way for centuries and centuries. While we may understand a lot about the mechanics of how it happens, it is nonetheless wondrous. It is both ordinary and worthy of being honored. I hope Mother’s Day, however you observed it, was good for you. And thanks to all of you who are mothers.