Welcome to My World: History of Mother’s Day

Reprint 1995 1st Rights to The Family Digest; 2017 Journal Plus

According to ancient Greek and Roman mythology, holding a festival in honor of motherhood was an ancient custom. The pagan Greek festival held in spring was in honor of Rhea, mother of the gods. This custom was introduced to Rome by Greece around 250 B.C. The Roman festival was called Hilaria, or “Mother of the gods,” and was celebrated on the 15th day of March. On this day, the people made offerings in the Temple of Cybele. The gifts became the property of the temple priests.

The early Christians adapted this pagan festival and it became common on the fourth Sunday of Lent for the faithful to visit their Mother Church, the church where they had been baptized as children. They brought with them offerings of gifts, flowers or jewels.

The custom of visiting the Mother Church was based on the reference in the Epistle read on the fourth Sunday of Lent: “Jerusalem is free, and she is our mother” (Galatians 4:26). In this sense, the holy city is a New Jerusalem—the Church who is our mother giving supernatural birth to us in baptism. The name “Mother,” meaning “home or refuge,” has always been given to things most cherished, such as Mother Jerusalem, Mother Church, and in mythology, “Mother of the gods.”

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During the 18th and 19th centuries, the outgrowth of this religious celebration was known as “Mothering Sunday.” The custom arose when youths who lived away from home were granted a holiday by their masters. It was a day not only to visit their Mother Church with gifts, but to also pay a visit to their own mothers and to give them special gifts. Accordingly, the day was to “go a-mothering,” hence, “Mothering Sunday.”

By World War II, because of American soldiers stationed in Great Britain, the old tradition of Mothering Sunday became confused with Mother’s Day. Today in England, the day is somewhat commercialized as it is in America, and is celebrated not during Lent but in the month of May.

It was Miss Ann Jarvis, a Philadelphia schoolteacher, who through her local and later nationwide efforts established Mother’s Day as we know it. Anna Jarvis, while growing up in Grafton, West Virginia, had often heard her mother say that there should be an annual day set aside to honor mothers. After her mother’s death in 1905, Anna remembered her mother’s idea. Miss Jarvis, who then lived in Philadelphia, had been unable to visit her mother or even visit her gravesite because of a lack of resources. Because of her predicament, Miss Jarvis was convinced that many people simply neglected their mothers during their lifetimes.

Prompted by her initial feelings of grief and idea that mothers were neglected, Anna Jarvis arranged the first observance of Mother’s Day at her mother’s church, Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, on May 10th, 1908. a similar service was held at a local church in Philadelphia.

Although today almost any flower, gift or trinket is appropriate, carnations became the customary flower on Mother’s Day. It was again through Anna Jarvis that this custom originated. She herself donated white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower, to the first church service. Later, white carnations distinguished deceased mothers, while red carnations were for living mothers.

Because of the success of this first Mother’s Day celebration, Miss Jarvis now had an unquenchable thirst for a nationwide observance. In 1908, she lobbied the City Council of Philadelphia for a Mother’s Day observance. The city council approved her resolution. In 1909, Pennsylvania became the first state to officially establish Mother’s Day as a holiday. In 1910, West Virginia issued a proclamation for Mother’s Day, followed by Oklahoma and Washington. By 1911, the observance of Mother’s Day had spread through the United States into Canada and some Latin American countries.

In December of 1912, the Mother’s Day International Association came into existence to promote greater observances of the day. By May of 1913, the House of Representatives passed a resolution for making the second Sunday of May a national holiday. Finally in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson issued the first presidential proclamation naming the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day throughout the United States. The president also issued a proclamation directing that the American flag be flown on all government buildings. He urged the American people to display the flag on their homes as “a public expression of our love and reverence for mothers in our country.”

In 1934, the U.S. Postal service issued a 3-cent stamp, carrying the portrait of Whistler’s mother as a tribute to mothers. Also, one can find in Ashland, Pennsylvania, a life-size bronze replica of this stamp in honor of Miss Anna Jarvis and all mothers.

Miss Jarvis herself never married, nor was she a mother. Her original zeal for the religious observance of Mother’s Day waned drastically as the day was exploited commercially by vendors of gifts, cards and flowers. Miss Jarvis died in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1948, disillusioned by what had become of the Mother’s Day holiday that she had spearheaded.

Nevertheless, the day has given us the opportunity to express our loving gratitude to mothers everywhere. Jesus Himself while on the cross, expressed concern for His mother Mary to His disciple John: “Woman, behold thy Son; Son, behold thy mother” (John 19:26-27). Indeed, God could not be everywhere, and therefore He made mothers.