What Is Mother's Day All About? This Holiday Has A Surprising History

On some level, it's obvious why we celebrate Mother's Day — moms are awesome and greeting card companies want to make money, so it's a happy convergence of interests. But how did this whole thing get started? Don't we appreciate Mom every day? But if you go digging, you'll find that the history of this holiday is actually much more complicated (and interesting) than you'd expect.

Mothers were celebrated long before the official U.S. holiday was established, of course. The mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele inspired ancient Greek and Roman celebrations of mothers. All early religions featured some kind of creator goddess, who symbolized fertility and the bounty of the earth. But there may be no clear lineage extending from these ancient holidays extending to our contemporary Mother's Day.

Instead, contemporary Mother's Day has its roots in "Mothering Sunday," a European Christian event during Lent. Exactly three weeks before Easter Sunday, parishioners were to return to their mother churches, where they were baptized or raised, to commemorate their religious homes. Oh, and there was cake — Simnel cake, a dessert featuring marzipan. Servant girls who had been working elsewhere brought this treat home to Mom on Mothering Sunday, and it provided a little break from the Lenten tradition of forgoing rich foods.


Maybe the cake gifting and return to the home you grew up in was part of how the celebration of your religious "mother" morphed into the celebration of your literal birth mother. In any case, Constance Smith contributed to the expansion (or confusion) of Mother's Day when she campaigned in 1920 for a day in celebration of familial mothers in Britain (she thought that the texts of the Church of England suggested that this celebration should happen during Lent, but Smith may have been misreading some figures of speech).

Smith was inspired in part by West Virginian Ann Reeves Jarvis. As explained on History.com, Jarvis the elder founded educational Mother's Clubs just prior to the Civil War and later promoted Mother's Friendship Day after the war (its purpose was to bring together former soldiers from both sides, in a spirit of reconciliation). Later, her daughter Anna Jarvis pushed for Mother's Day as we know it, enlisting the support of a businessman to host Mother's Day events in Grafton, West Virginia and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1908.


Within a few years, Mother's Day celebrations had proliferated in the United States and took on the meaning of celebrating the sacrifices of mothers for their children. Jarvis the younger saw this as a way of rectifying how many holidays already celebrated men (though of course men would later catch up with a Father's Day of their own). Woodrow Wilson made things official in 1914, proclaiming the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day for "the public expression of our love and respect for the mothers of this country."

Things got a little out of control after that, though, with the commercialization of Mother's Day quickly running rampant. By 1920, Anna Jarvis came to disapprove of Mother's Day, cutting ties with her former florist business partners and urging people not to buy things for their mothers. She rejected offers of profit sharing, attempted to secure a trademark for "Mother's Day" and sue the infringers, and even got arrested for disturbing the peace while protesting Mother's Day.


Strangely enough, neither Smith nor Anna Jarvis ever became a mother herself. I guess they really were moved by just the concept of mothering and its importance in the world. And basically the history of Mother's Day is some weird amalgam of old religious tradition, new commercial enterprises, and a secular but well-intentioned holiday sandwiched in between. Whether you go to church, write your mom a letter, or buy her something, you're partaking in this mixed bag of Mother's Day history.

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