The majority of countries that celebrate Mother’s Day do so on the second Sunday of May. On this day, it is common for Mothers to be celebrated with presents and special attention from their families, friends and loved ones.
But it wasn’t always this way…
Spiritual Origins of Mother’s Day
The traditional practice of honoring of Motherhood is rooted in antiquity. Ancient rites had strong symbolic and spiritual overtones, as societies tended to celebrate Goddesses and symbols of motherhood, rather than actual Mothers. Objects of adoration ranged from mythological female deities, to the Christian Church.
The personal, family orientation of Mothers Day is a relatively new phenomenon. Only in the past few centuries did celebrations of Motherhood develop a decidedly human focus, and only in last century did Mothers Day take on commercial overtones.
Goddess Isis – Early Egyptian Roots
One of the earliest historical records of a society celebrating a Mother deity can be found among the ancient Egyptians, who held an annual festival to honor the goddess Isis. Her stern, yet handsome head is typically crowned by a pair of bull horns enclosing a fiery sun orb. She is most often depicted sitting on a throne.
As the story goes, after Isis’ brother-husband Osiris was slain and dismembered in 13 pieces by their jealous brother Seth, Isis re-assembled Osiris’ body and used it to impregnate herself. She then gave birth to Horus, who she hid among the reeds lest he be slaughtered by Seth. Horus grew up and defeated Seth, and then became the first ruler of a unified Egypt. Thus Isis earned her stature as the Mother of the pharaohs.
Isis also held a place at the Roman temple, despite being aforeign deity. The Festival of Isis was used by the Romans to commemorate an important battle and mark the beginning of winter. The celebration, which lasted for three days, centered around mostly-female dancers, musicians and singers.
It is interesting to note that the Mother and Son imagery of Isis and Horus — in which Isis cradles and suckles her son — is strikingly similar to that of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.
Cybele and Rhea – Ancient Mother Goddesses
Isis may have been early on the scene in Rome, but it was the emergence of two other mother goddesses, Cybele from Phrygia in ancient Anatolia (modern Turkey), and Rhea from Greece, that perhaps laid the most important foundation for the worship and celebration of motherhood in Europe.
The Phrygian goddess Cybele has roots dating back 6,000 years to Neolithic times. Phrygians celebrated a “Mother Goddess,” whose realm was the earth’s mountains and caverns, natural surroundings, and wild animals. References to Cybele as “Potnia Theron” (a term used by Homer to describe female divinities associated with animals) confirm to her ancient Neolithic roots as “Mother of the Animals.”
By around 600 BC, worship of the Phrygian Mother Goddess had been adopted into much of Asia Minor, and parts of Greece.
The Greeks named her “Cybele” and also called her “Matar” for “mother.”
At the same time, some Greeks already worshiped another mother goddess: Rhea, the Greek mother of the Gods. Rhea was born from the union of the Greek goddess Gaia, the personification of Earth, and Uranus, the sky god.
The two mother goddesses Cybele (above) and Rhea (left) were so similar in their nature and iconography that they became closely, almost interchangeably, intertwined in Greek life and culture.
Magna Mater and Rome
After a meteor shower and failed harvest seemed to predict doom for the Roman republic, Rome officially adapted Cybele as its own Mother Goddess. Eventually, the Romans and the Greeks simply referred to her as Magna Mater, the Great Mother.
The Roman festival of Megalesia, to celebrate the Magna Mater goddess, was held from April 4-10, in close proximity to:
– the Vernal Equinox (March 20/21), and,
– the Roman festivals of Hilaria (March 15-28), in celebration of Cybele.
During the Hilaria, games were held in honor of the Mother of the Gods. Customary during the Hilaria was a procession through the streets with a statue of the goddess carried at the head, followed by a display of elaborate arts and crafts.
Earlier festivals celebrating the Anatolian Mother Goddess were said to be at times so wild that they were eventually discouraged or banned. But the more conservative celebrations of Magna Mater, Hilaria and equivalents, involved eating honey cakes and sharing flowers.
By the 16th Century, as Ancient Roman religious and cultural traditions in Europe and England gave way to the spread of Christianity, Hilaria celebrations became part of Laetare Sunday – the fourth Sunday of Lent in the Christian liturgical calendar (the 40 days of fasting preceding Easter Sunday). Early Christians in England initially used the day to honor the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ … and the church in which they were baptized, which they knew as their “Mother Church.” This place of worship would be decorated with jewels, flowers and other offerings.
Individual Mothers Recognized
In the 17th Century, a clerical decree in England broadened the celebration from one focused on the church and the Virgin Mary, to include real Mothers, referring to the occasion as Mothering Day.
Mothering Day became an especially compassionate holiday toward the working classes of England. During this Lenten Sunday, servants and trade workers were allowed to travel back to their towns of origin to visit their families.
Mothering Day also provided a reprieve from the fasting and penance of Lent. Families across England enjoyed a family feast; Mothers were presented with cakes and flowers; and beloved, distant children came home to visit.
Read more about the Origins and History of Mothering Sunday in the UK.
History of American Celebration
When the first English settlers came to America, they discontinued the tradition of Mothering Day. While the British holiday would live on, the American Mother’s Day would be invented — with an entirely new history — centuries later. One explanation for the settlers’ discontinuation of Mothering Day was that they just didn’t have time; they lived under harsh conditions and were forced to work long hours in order to survive. Another possibility, however, is that Mothering Day conflicted with their Puritan ideals. Fleeing England to practice a more conservative Christianity without being persecuted, the pilgrims ignored the more secular holidays, focusing instead on a no-frills devotion to God. For example, even holidays such as Christmas and Easter were more somber occasions for the pilgrims, usually taking place in a Church that was stripped of all extraneous ornamentation.
Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870
The first North American Mother’s Day was conceptualized with Julia Ward Howe’sMother’s Day Proclamation in 1870.
Despite having penned The Battle Hymn of the Republic twelve years earlier, Howe had become so distraught by the death and carnage of the Civil War that she called on Mother’s to come together and protest what she saw as the futility of their Sons killing the Sons of other Mothers.
With the following, she called for an international Mother’s Day celebrating peace and motherhood:
Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts,
Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears
“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of
charity, mercy and patience.
“We women of one country
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says, “Disarm, Disarm!”
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice!
Blood does not wipe out dishonor
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have of ten forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war.
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions.
The great and general interests of peace.
The Rise & Fall of Howe’s Mother’s Day
At one point Howe even proposed converting July 4th into Mother’s Day, in order to dedicate the nation’s anniversary to peace. Eventually, however, June 2nd was designated for the celebration.
In 1873 women’s groups in 18 North American cities observed this new Mother’s holiday. Howe initially funded many of these celebrations, but most of them died out once she stopped footing the bill. The city of Boston, however, would continue celebrating Howe’s holiday for 10 more years.
Despite the decided failure of her holiday, Howe had nevertheless planted the seed that would blossom into what we know as Mother’s Day today. A West Virginia women’s group led by Anna Reeves Jarvis began to celebrate an adaptation of Howe’s holiday. In order to re-unite families and neighbors that had been divided between the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War, the group held a Mother’s Friendship Day.
Anna M. Jarvis’s Mother’s Day in 1908
After Anna Reeves Jarvis died, her daughter Anna M. Jarvis campaigned for the creation of an official Mother’s Day in remembrance of her mother and in honor of peace.
In 1908, Anna petitioned the superintendent of the church where her Mother had spent over 20 years teaching Sunday School. Her request was honored, and on May 10, 1908, the first official Mother’s Day celebration took place at Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia and a church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The West Virginia event drew a congregation of 407 and Anna Jarvis arranged for white carnations — her Mother’s favorite flower — to adorn the patrons. Two carnations were given to every Mother in attendance.
Today, white carnations are used to honor deceased Mothers, while pink or red carnations pay tribute to Mothers who are still alive.
Andrew’s Methodist Church was incorporated into the International Mother’s Day Shrinein the late 1960’s, and in 1992, became a National Historic Landmark for its significance in the establishment of a national Mother’s Day celebration.
US Government Adoption
In 1908 a U.S. Senator from Nebraska, Elmer Burkett, proposed making Mother’s Day a national holiday at the request of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The proposal was defeated, but by 1909 forty-six states were holding Mother’s Day services as well as parts of Canada and Mexico.
Anna Jarvis quit working and devoted herself full time to the creation of Mother’s Day, endlessly petitioning state governments, business leaders, women groups, churches and other institutions and organizations. She finally convinced the World’s Sunday School Association to back her, a key influence over state legislators and congress. In 1912 West Virginia became the first state to officially recognize Mother’s Day, and in 1914 Woodrow Wilson signed it into national observance, declaring the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.
The Fight Over Commercialization
The holiday flourished in the United States. Flowers, especially white carnations, became a very popular part of the celebration. One business journal, Florists Review, went so far as to print, “This was a holiday that could be exploited.” But the budding commercialization of Mother’s Day greatly disturbed Jarvis, who vociferously opposed what she perceived as a misuse of the holiday.
In 1923 Jarvis sued to stop a Mother’s Day event. In the 1930’s she was arrested for disturbing the peace at the American War Mothers group: She was protesting their sale of flowers. Jarvis also petitioned against a postage stamp featuring her Mother with a vase of white carnations and the word “Mother’s Day.” Jarvis was able to have the words “Mother’s Day” removed … but the flowers remained.
In 1938, Time Magazine ran an article about Jarvis’s fight to copyright Mother’s Day, but by then it was already too late to change the commercial trend.
In opposition to the flower industry’s exploitation of the holiday, Jarvis wrote, “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?” Despite her efforts, flower sales on Mother’s Day continued to grow. Florist’s Review wrote, “Miss Jarvis was completely squelched.”
Anna Jarvis died in 1948, blind, poor and childless. Jarvis would never know that it was, ironically, The Florist’s Exchange that had anonymously paid for her care.