The Tarnished Day We Celebrate As Mother’s Day

When a woman named Anna Jarvis created Mother’s Day at the turn of the last century, she intended it as a tribute to all the amazing ways mothers give to the world, but she would spend the remaining years of her life and all her money trying to purge the holiday from our calendars.

For all the mothers out there, nationally and internationally, it’s a good thing Jarvis failed in her efforts.

While not every country celebrates Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May, 46 of them celebrate a day where Mothers receive the credit they are due.

Most historians agree that it started before Jarvis, though, with the Greeks.

The Greeks and Romans

For the ancient Greeks, the Day of Rhea (not the actual name) was part of the spring festival. Rhea was the Greek maternal goddess, mother to many of their gods.

That celebration, as with all worthy Greek traditions, the Romans co-opted in their own spring festival. For three days in March, they would party and make offerings to the temple of Cybele, who was a Roman mother goddess like Rhea.

These traditions, however, had no influence on our modern tradition. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

Early Christians

Mothering Sunday, in the Christian tradition, was the fourth Sunday in the season of Lent. It dates back to the 1600s.

The focus for those early Christians was not so much on Mom as it was the big mom: Mary. This tradition we find in Europe, especially in Britain, but later in Greece.

Merchants and the heads of royal households would encourage servants and employees to return to their mother church, to pay tribute to Mary and their own mothers. They would participate in a service to Mary, then offer gifts and flowers to Mom.

This tradition lasted until the 1800s but faded until the Second World War. Some servicemen from the war brought home the tradition, which they picked up in Europe, but again, this was less about Mom as it was about Mary.

U.S. Mother’s Day

When Anna Jarvis first suggested we celebrate a mother’s day, she wasn’t the first. Activist and writer Julie Ward had suggested something like this way back in 1872, but she lobbied for a June 2nd holiday.

Whether Ward’s appeal made it to Jarvis’ ears is debatable. Jarvis had her own mother in mind, a woman she revered. Anne Marie Jarvis, Anna’s mom, was an active caretaker in the U.S. Civil War, a mother to many.

When Jarvis’ mom passed in 1905, she vowed to make good on her mother’s hope for the creation of a day for mothers. She’d overheard her mother praying about it once.

The year after her mother’s passing, Jarvis organized the first Mother’s Day. Children were to celebrate their own mothers, not the general concept of being a mother. They would do so by buying carnations and writing letters of gratitude.

By 1911, President Woodrow Wilson designated the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Commercial Effect

As the years progressed, Mother’s Day became a marketable event. Card makers moved in to sell cards with motherly sentiments. Flower shops marketed prepackaged floral arrangements. Cute gifts flew off the shelves. The holiday had gone fully commercial.

Jarvis recoiled in horror at what she considered the cheapening of Mother’s Day. As the years passed, that commercialization increased.

She began to invest in a lobby to have the day removed from the national calendar. She would spend the rest of her life fighting for its removal, a fight she never won.

It is with deep irony that history records no children of her own for Jarvis. She would pass in regret of the monster she created, a lovely holiday where mothers across the nation and the world get one day of respite and respect.

Sources:, Mother’s Day, Legacy Project