Holidays Mother's Day

The History of Mother’s Day

A card reading "Happy Mother's Day" sits in a bouquet of flowers

Honoring mothers and motherhood is a custom celebrated around the world, and one that dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, with festivals for the mother goddesses, Rhea and Cybele.  In the US, we celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May, and this particular tradition has its own origin story. The clearest precursor to the holiday we celebrate today is Mothering Sunday, an early Christian festival popular in the United Kingdom and Europe.

But the path to what we now know as Mother’s Day includes some twists and turns, including regret and an attempted reversal by the founder of the official holiday. These days, we often don’t reflect on the history of Mother’s Day and its evolution over the years. Busy lives mean it can be tough to find the time to just plan for the big day. This is a bit ironic in the case of Mother’s Day, whose focus has seen some drastic changes in its history.

The creation of Mother’s Day is attributed to three women: Julia Ward Howe and Ann Reeves Jarvis, both community activists who founded the day for community engagement and mutual aid, and the daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis, Anna M. Jarvis, who campaigned to make Mother’s Day an official holiday to memorialize her mother’s achievements in service and honor all mothers. This is where things took an interesting turn. The story may just inspire you to change the way you celebrate this year!

Mothering Sunday

The history of Mother’s Day actually reaches back to at least the 16th century, where Mothering Sunday was widely celebrated in parts of Europe and the United Kingdom. The festival was held on the fourth Sunday in Lent, and was centered around returning to one’s “mother church,” or the church of their home village. This could mean a substantial journey for many, who would return home to gather with family and celebrate.

Part of the Mothering Sunday custom was for those working at wealthy estates and farms to have the fourth Sunday of Lent off to be with family. Over time, a tradition of children giving mothers gifts and flowers on this day, and as the celebrations became more secular, Mothering Sunday began to intersect with what had since been officially established in the United States as Mother’s Day. By the 1930s, the merger was complete.

Julia Ward Howe

If you think you recognize this name, you’re probably not imagining things! Julia Ward Howe was a famous poet, who penned “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She was also a reformer, and a volunteer for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, working to ensure safe medical environments and provide sanitary supplies. During the civil War this meant ensuring sanitary medical conditions for sick and wounded soldiers.

After seeing the cruelty of war up close, Howe called for mothers to join together to prevent the senseless injury and loss of life. She founded the “Mother’s Day for Peace” around 1870. In her “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” Howe urged mothers to work to end war, since they knew and bore the losses.  Julia Ward Howe’s version of Mother’s Day lasted about 30 years, celebrated in Boston and other cities between the U.S. Civil War and the beginning of World War I.

Ann Reeves Jarvis

Howe’s work would serve to bolster the efforts of Ann Reeves Jarvis, known as Mother Jarvis, an Appalachian homemaker and activist whose establishment of a mother’s day preceded Howe’s by a couple of decades.. Concerned about perilous health conditions and high infant mortality rates in Appalachia, Jarvis organized “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to address poor living conditions and to aid and educate new mothers. 

Like Howe, Mother Jarvis was moved by the human toll of war, and during the Civil War, organized mothers to aid soldiers, emphasizing the importance of administering care without bias toward the soldier’s allegiance. Hoping to promote peace and reconciliation between Union and Confederate families after the war, Jarvis founded Mothers’ Friendship Day.

Mother’s Day a National Holiday

After the death of Ann Reeves Jarvis in 1905, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, sought to memorialize her mother’s life and honor all mothers by making Mother’s Day a national holiday. Her focus was not on service and activism as her mother’s was, but on honoring mothers and the sacrifices of motherhood.  

Anna Jarvis campaigned tirelessly to have Mother’s Day declared an official holiday, lobbying local leaders and civic organizations with a constant stream of telegrams, letters, and in-person meetings. She spoke publicly to groups, and sent leaflets and other promotional material, usually at her own expense.

In May of 1908, with financial support from a Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker, Jarvis held the first official Mother’s Day event honoring her mother’s memory at a church in her mother’s home state of West Virginia. That same day, one of Wanamaker’s stores hosted a crowd of thousands at their Mother’s Day event. The following year, The church in West Virginia held a celebration again on the same Sunday, honoring all mothers, and so the holiday took root.

By 1912, Mother’s Day celebrations were taking place across the nation, and Jarvis formed the Mother’s Day International Association to promote her campaign for making the holiday official. Finally, her work paid off, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson officially established the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day. 

Anna Jarvis Regrets Creating Mother’s Day

Anna Jarvis

Anna Jarvis

When Anna Jarvis conceived her plan to make Mother’s Day an official holiday, she envisioned a day of intimate family celebrations. As the holiday became more and more popular, though, she grew disgusted by the commercialization of the day. She became vocal about her outrage, urging people to stop buying gifts, candy, cards, and flowers.

Eventually, Jarvis launched an open campaign against retailers, filing lawsuits against businesses using the words “Mother’s Day” in their sales advertising. She spent most of her wealth on these lawsuits, and on lobbying the government to remove Mother’s Day from the calendar. By the time she died in 1948, Jarvis had denounced and disowned the holiday.

Mother’s Day Celebration Ideas And Activities

Let’s face it – these days most of our holidays include traditions that are decidedly commercial, and those traditions have real personal value. How many of us have childhood memories of Mom’s joy at receiving a bouquet of Mother’s Day roses? At the same time, it’s not a bad idea to ponder Jarvis’ dismay and consider starting some traditions that are less about gifts and more about time spent with Mom. We have a few ideas to help:

  • Mother’s Day Hike – Is your family active and outdoorsy? Check around your area for hiking trails that everyone would enjoy, and spend Mother’s Day reconnecting with nature and each other!
  • Breakfast in the Park – Why not replace Mother’s Day brunch with a family breakfast pitch-in at a local park? Picnic shelters often fill up later in the day, but if Mom is an early riser, snag one in the morning and start Mother’s Day together with all her favorite breakfast treats!
  • Outdoor Concert/Festival – In many cities, the first weeks of spring mean outdoor activities like plays, concerts, and festivals. Check the local community calendars for events that Mom would love, and plan the day around one.
  • Museum/Botanical Garden – Maybe there’s an exhibit your mother has been dying to check out, or a museum they love to visit. Why not make a special date to take her on Mother’s Day?

Sustainable Flower Delivery from The Bouqs

Modern Mother’s Day plans, like most holiday plans these days, require a balance of tradition and evolution. At The Bouqs, we strike that balance by honoring the timeless tradition of giving flowers for Mother’s Day with the freshest, longest-lasting blooms, sustainably delivered from the farm to Mom’s door. We want the flowers or plant you choose for Mother’s Day to be the perfect complement to a day of loving personal celebrations. Happy Mother’s Day from The Bouqs!

Shop All

You Might Also Like