Today is Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day as we know it — where we celebrate our own mothers, with flowers, gifts, and cards — is relatively new, but annual celebrations to celebrate motherhood are an ancient practice.
The motherhood festivities have historically been in spring, the season of fertility. In ancient Egypt, there were celebrations to honor Isis, the loving mother-goddess, who is often shown in Egyptian art with the baby Horus at her breast, much like Mary and Jesus in later Christian iconography. The cult of the great mother-goddess Cybele began in Turkey and soon moved to Greece and Rome, and she was worshipped in some form for more than a thousand years. Her priestesses led wild celebrations, full of drinking, dancing, music, and all kinds of debauchery.
As the Roman Empire and Europe transitioned to Christianity, the Church set aside the fourth Sunday of Lent as a day to honor motherhood. It was a day to celebrate the Virgin Mary, and for people to honor their “mother church.”
In the 1600s, England declared an official Mothering Day for that fourth Sunday of Lent. It was a time when families were encouraged to get together, and servants or workers were allowed one day off work to go see their mothers, since many working-class families in England worked as servants on separate estates and rarely got to see each other. Mothering Day was also declared an exception to the fasting and penance of Lent, so that families could have a feast together.
When the pilgrims came to America, they stopped celebrating Mothering Day, just as they stopped celebrating most holidays that they thought had become too secular.
Mother’s Day was reintroduced to America in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe, who wanted to set aside a day of protest after the Civil War, in which mothers could come together and protest their sons killing other mothers’ sons.
But the woman who really created Mother’s Day as we know it was Anna Jarvis. Her mother had held Mother’s Friendship Days to reunite families and neighbors separated during the war, and when she died, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, worked to proclaim an official Mother’s Day to honor her mother and celebrate peace. And so on May 10, 1908, the first official Mother’s Day celebrations took place in Grafton, West Virginia, and at a church in Philadelphia. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson designated the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day.
But Mother’s Day became commercialized very quickly, especially in the floral industry, and Anna Jarvis was furious. She said, “What will you do to route charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers, and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest, and truest movements and celebrations?” But flower sales and card sales continued to grow, and Anna Jarvis died in poverty and without any children of her own.