Mother's Day: How it began and what it reveals

May 5th, 2015

The origins of Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is a day of celebration for many people as they honor devoted mothers and those who have been like mothers to them throughout their lives. For other people, however, the day is a painful one — a reminder of mothers who have been less than devoted and, in some cases, abusive and neglectful. The history of the day is more colorful than one might expect and intersects with and highlights the perceptions our society has had about women and mothers throughout the century since it became an official holiday.

Mother’s Day became a national holiday in 1914. Honoring mothers was nothing new, though. Some people see in the ancient Greek and Roman customs of honoring mother goddesses, called Rhea and Cybele, precursors of our modern celebrations. More recently, however, in the United Kingdom and Europe, there was a day called “Mothering Sunday.” It was held on the fourth Sunday of Lent and seemed to have started off as what we might today call a homecoming. This is because the tradition was for people to return to their “mother” church, the one closest to where they lived, for a special service. In time the tradition faded, and people honored their mothers at home with cards and flowers, much as we do today.

In the United States, a forerunner of Mother’s Day can be found in a proclamation written by author and activist Julia Ward Howe calling on mothers to work for world peace and for mothers to be recognized on June 2. Did you know that there’s even a man called the “father of Mother’s Day”? Frank Hering worked alongside Mary Towles Sasseen in an attempt to get Mother’s Day recognized in the late 19th century.

It was a woman named Anna Jarvis, however, who succeeded in nationalizing a celebration of Mother’s Day. Jarvis wanted to honor her own mother, of course, but some sources say that it was actually Jarvis’s mother herself who felt compelled to work for a day honoring mothers. The younger Anna, as a child, reportedly heard her mother pray for “a memorial day for mothers.”

When Anna was older and began working to fulfill their wish for a day to honor mothers, she received backing from John Wannamaker, owner of a chain of stores in Philadelphia. In May of 1908, the first Mother’s Day celebrations were held at a Methodist church in West Virginia and at one of Wannamaker’s stores in Philadelphia. The church, St. Andrew’s, is now called the “International Mother’s Day Shrine” and is a national historic landmark.

The first observance was successful, but it was not until 1914 that President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill adding Mother’s Day as a national holiday. Anna Jarvis and others who felt inspired to see the day become a national holiday achieved this after a lot of hard work. Up until then, they thought the calendar was overwhelmingly loaded with days that honored only men. An interesting side note to this history is that Jarvis eventually deplored the commercialization of Mother’s Day, which she conceived as a time of simple celebration with one’s mother but had become a cash cow for florists and greeting card makers. She was actively working to get the day off the national calendar by the time of her death in 1948.

What the holiday reveals

Through the brief outline of the history of Mother’s Day, a few things become apparent. First, the day may have evolved from a simple desire to honor mothers, but it soon became clear that it meant more than that for Anna Jarvis and those who, like her, thought that national holidays were too male-centric. One wonders if she thought the holiday did what she was hoping it would, though, before she realized that it had become more and more about buying cards and flowers and less and less about simply honoring the women who fulfill the role of mother in the life of the nation.

Mother’s Day may reveal less about the disparity in holidays or how far the rights of women have come since the holiday was adopted than the founders might have wanted. The latter consideration is worth pursuing for a moment. When the day became a national holiday, women still did not have the right to vote. This was corrected on June 4, 1919, with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It is unclear if there is a direct path from the establishment of Mother’s Day and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, but organizations dedicated to the cause of women’s suffrage used the occasion to press the case.

Mother’s Day, then, gives us an opportunity to discuss the great progress that has occurred when it comes to the rights of women. As it has been in the past, it also can be an opportunity to advocate for those rights that still need to be extended. There can also be considerations about the state of motherhood today, as the holiday gives us the occasion to examine it.

Supporting mothers

As the opening statement in this essay described, there are some for whom this day may be a source of pain. Their mothers may have not been able to provide the care that mothers are often expected to provide. Often, circumstances beyond their control can stand in the way of mothers and their ability to care properly for their children.

How can people of faith respond to the challenges that mothers face around the world? The United Methodist Church has an initiative to assist mothers at the most basic level. The Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project is a partnership between the United Nations Foundation and the General Board of Church and Society to promote maternal health and family planning across the denomination and around the world. The group holds advocacy training in order to teach faith leaders and lay volunteers how to be effective advocates for maternal health.

In 2013, there were 10 million single moms living with children under the age of 18 — there were 3.4 million in 1970. According to The Washington Post, nearly a third of single mothers live below the poverty line. The reasons for this are complicated, but it is important to know that there are many faith-based and secular organizations working to meet the needs of single mothers.

The Restoration House in Knoxville, Tennessee, works with single mothers in that area to “restore [them] and their children back to God’s good intent for their lives, through supportive transitional housing, ally teams, and family advocacy.” The program attempts to meet the holistic needs of mothers and their children and works with them to establish a savings account so that when they graduate from the program, they can make a down payment on a house or pursue higher education.

Churches often have support groups to assist single mothers. The Woodlands United Methodist Church in Texas offers such a group. The church also offers a ministry that provides home repairs and maintenance.

Mothers who are not single, along with their partners, may also need some help from time to time. Parenting classes and support groups are appropriate ministries, along with mentoring from more seasoned parents. Franktown United Methodist Church, where the writer of this issue is a member, hosted a “Parent’s Night Out” on several occasions. Parents could bring their children for free babysitting and enjoy some time alone together.

The bottom line

Mother’s Day can remind us, whether we are celebrating a great mom or grieving one who was unable to meet our needs, that parenting is hard work. And so, it is important to honor women who have held the title mother, whether they physically gave birth to us, adopted us or just watched over us for a time.

Mother’s Day can also be an opportunity to think about the status of women in general and the struggles and issues that they face. This should not simply be for a day, however. As the organizations and ministries described remind us, there are many ways to reach out in support and encouragement.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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