The Unexpected History of Mother’s Day

A quick look at the strange history of Mother’s Day, from ancient times to today’s $20 billion commercial bonanza.

While our American version of Mother’s Day is just 101 years old, there are far more ancient holidays celebrating motherhood.

In spring festivals, the ancient Greeks celebrated maternal goddesses like Rhea, mother of the Olympian goddesses and gods. (Rhea was married to Cronus –  you know, the god that ate most of his kids.)

Ancient Romans also celebrated mother goddesses like Cybele, Great Mothofer of the Gods, with festivals of games, sacrifices and “war dancers delighted by blood” during the Ides of March and early April.

Early Christians celebrated Mary during Lent. By the 1600’s, this evolved into Mothering Sunday in England. (Admit it, ‘Mother’s Day’ is a better title.) After church on Mothering Sundays kids would bring small gifts home to their mothers.

Years ago I read that Mother’s Day was founded by poet, songwriter, pacifist, feminist and intellectual badass Julia Ward Howe with her “Mother’s Day Proclamation.” Her version was actually called “Mother’s Peace Day” and it was intended to unite mothers against war. It gained a bit of traction, but never became official.

Our official version of Mother’s Day was founded by a pioneering businesswoman named Anna Jarvis. Her mother had been a pacifist and community activist during the Civil War, she founded  “Mothers Friendship Day” to bring together families from the North and South.

Anna Jarvis first had the idea of a day for mothers in 1876. However, her campaign to create a “Mother’s Day” (with an apostrophe deliberately marking the singular possessive) didn’t begin until 1905, the year her own mother died.

Anna Jarvis’ concept of Mother’s Day was time spent at home with your mother, where you’d sincerely give appreciation for all she did.

Almost instantly, of course, the holiday became a commercial frenzy of candy, printed cards, and cut flowers. Jarvis was furious about this, saying “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”

Indeed, she spent the rest of her life desperately fighting what she saw as a perversion of the holiday she had created. She organized boycotts and lawsuits, crashed various conventions and hectored prominent charities. She was arrested for disturbing the peace during her protests.

Jarvis kept up the battle to redeem Mother’s Day until she died, broke, in a Philadelphia sanitarium in the late 1940’s.

Americans now spend over $20 billion a year on Mother’s Day ($640 million on cards alone.) An average $170  is spent per mother. Very far from a simple day of appreciation and gratitude.

At least we’re not still celebrating with “war dancers delighted by blood.”

Also read: “Why ‘mama’ is the most common word.”