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The Real Story of How Mother’s Day Got Started

The second Sunday in May marks Mother’s Day in the United States: one singular day to recognize the hard work moms put in year-round. But the way we now generally celebrate mothers — with gifts, flowers, and brunch specials — differs drastically from the original intent behind the holiday. So much so, the woman who lobbied for a national day recognizing mothers spent the rest of her life advocating for its demise. Here’s how one woman’s quest to honor her mother’s legacy created a holiday now celebrated around the world.

The Earliest Mother’s Day Celebrations

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When activist Anna Jarvis set out to make Mother’s Day a national holiday in 1908, she unknowingly created a modern holiday that would outlive her. But she didn’t entirely invent the idea of a day devoted to mothers.

The roots of Mother’s Day reach far back into ancient Greek and Roman cultures, which both held springtime festivals to celebrate their mother goddesses. Christians in Europe began observing their own mid-spring event, Mothering Sunday, during the 16th century, where worshippers were encouraged to return to their “mother church,” the largest church of their region or from their childhood, on the fourth Sunday of Lent. The holiday became a natural time for family reunions, because children working as servants or laborers were often granted a reprieve and could use the day to travel home. Visiting one’s mother, as well as one’s mother church, became a part of the custom, with children often picking wildflowers to present to their mothers as small gifts. This remained a springtime tradition through the early 1900s — fading from popularity around the same time the American push for a Mother’s Day holiday began.

The Making of Modern Mother’s Day

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Oddly enough, it took a war to jumpstart recognition for all the work mothers do. By the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, public health and reform movements had been sweeping the country for nearly three decades, bringing awareness to the need for better living conditions and healthcare, among other issues.

In West Virginia, activist Anna Reeves Jarvis had already been working as a community organizer prior to the war’s outbreak, creating Mothers’ Day Work Clubs that offered sanitation, household, and parenting education, as well as community services such as inspecting bottled milk and providing money for medicine. With young America in the throes of the Civil War, Reeves Jarvis encouraged her clubs to provide medical care and services to all soldiers and families, regardless of uniform or political beliefs. Following the war, she established Mothers Friendship Day, a local holiday celebrated with community picnics. While the event was used to honor mothers, its true purpose was to aid in reconciliation between families and neighbors who had become divided by the war’s hostilities.

Reeves Jarvis gave birth to a daughter, Anna, around the war’s end. As an adult, Anna came to believe that her mother’s community work was under-appreciated, and the elder Jarvis’ death on May 9, 1905, would become the major catalyst in Anna’s efforts to establish a national day for mothers. Some historians say that while alive, Reeves Jarvis had wished for a day honoring the service of mothers to humanity, and her daughter decided to make that dream a reality.

Three years after her mother’s death, Anna Jarvis launched her first Mother’s Day event. On May 10, 1908, she organized a memorial service at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in her hometown of Grafton, West Virginia, honoring her mother and others in the community. There, she provided white carnations for children to give to their mothers. (Carnations, her mother’s favorite flower, would become Jarvis’ symbol of maternal respect; she encouraged children to wear white carnations to honor a deceased parent and brightly colored carnations for those still living.) In the days and months after the event, Jarvis undertook an intensive letter-writing campaign, reaching out to newspapers, social groups, and elected officials, arguing in favor of Mother’s Day celebrations across the country. She advocated for the second Sunday of May, the closest Sunday to the anniversary of her mother’s death, as the date for the celebrations. By 1910, Mother’s Day was a recognized holiday in West Virginia, with other states following soon after.

Advocating for a National Holiday

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With Mother’s Day becoming more widely recognized, Jarvis decided to push for national observance. A first attempt at creating a national holiday failed in 1908 when Congress rejected the idea; legislators mocked the proposal, suggesting the holiday would lead to a future need for Father’s Day and holidays for every family member.

In 1912, Jarvis established the Mother’s Day International Association, using the group to gain support from legislators across the political spectrum who supported a national holiday. Two years later she finally reached her goal. On May 8, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law legislation designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. The following day, he released a proclamation announcing the new holiday as a “public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”

Fighting Against Her Own Creation

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Mother’s Day was quickly accepted by most Americans, which probably gave Jarvis a sense of accomplishment. But the feeling wouldn’t last. The rush to capitalize on and monetize the new holiday would soon sour the holiday’s champion against her own creation.

In her original vision, Jarvis saw Mother’s Day as a personalized, intimate holiday that honored mothers individually (hence the apostrophe placement in the title). She emphasized the need for personal acts of care, like visits and handwritten letters. Instead, she watched as the day became a retail boost for florists, candy makers, and stores to hawk mass-produced gifts. Mother’s Day also served as a propaganda tool. When the U.S. entered World War I three years after the holiday’s creation, patriotic mothers were featured on military recruitment ads encouraging men to enlist in their honor; overseas, sons were encouraged to send home letters or packages from the front lines in time for Mother’s Day. Decades later, Mother’s Day was also used to sell war bonds during World War II.

Just as she had fervently rallied for the day of honor, Jarvis began to campaign for its removal. With growing anger and disgust over the commercialization of the day, she began to lash out at those who promoted events, products, and even meals for Mother’s Day. In an effort to curb marketing, she trademarked “Mother’s Day” and “second Sunday in May,” though she noted it was unlikely anything would come of the effort. In less than 10 years, Jarvis began making impassioned pleas in person to keep the holiday’s original meaning, attacking public officials who supported the large-scale celebrations. In 1923, she threatened to sue the governor of New York over a Mother’s Day event. That same year she crashed a confectioner’s convention, where she attacked those in attendance for monetizing the holiday. Two years later she caused a scene at the American War Mothers national convention over her belief that fundraising from Mother’s Day carnation sales was a scam; she was actually arrested for disturbing the peace.

Jarvis also released scorn-filled press releases calling florists who raised prices around Mother’s Day “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites,” and discarded the signature carnation once used to honor the holiday, encouraging others to boycott florists altogether. At one point, Jarvis went so far as to spar with Eleanor Roosevelt about using Mother’s Day as a charity fundraiser, sending hostile telegrams to the White House. In a last effort, Jarvis petitioned for the holiday to be erased from calendars, going door to door collecting signatures to rescind the federal designation.

Unlike many people, Jarvis never made any money off Mother’s Day. Instead, she whittled away her inheritance trying to undermine the holiday she had birthed.

The Lasting Legacy of Mother’s Day

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Jarvis’ worst fears about her deeply personal holiday weren’t completely unfounded. More than 100 years after the holiday became federally recognized, Americans spend extravagantly in honor of their moms. The National Retail Federation reported in 2019 that the average American spends $180 on Mother’s Day festivities, with that number inching closer to $200 each year. But Jarvis may not have realized the good her holiday did, too. Some semblance of Mother’s Day is celebrated around the world, even though days and festivities may differ. And approximately 122 million phone calls are made on Mother’s Day, more than any other day of the year — which goes to show that thanking your mom can be as simple (and free) as a heartfelt hello.

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