The Inspiring Story Behind Mother's Day

by Ajableu Oldham
Behind the piles of white carnations, glittery cards, and "I love you Mom" mugs which dominate the Mother's Day landscapce (and which you may very well be rushing to the store to buy at the last minute) is a surprising story about two women, a mother daughter pair both named Anna Jarvis. (Actually, the mom was named Ann Jarvis and the daughter was named Anna Jarvis.) Their amazing story is a glimpse into America's past, and a timely reminder of how we can be more mindful and more giving toward our mothers and our community at large.

This Mother's Day we think it's worth pausing to connect with a deeper meaning behind the holiday and to think about how we can honor that past while showing the women in our lives who have been mothers to us how much we appreciate all that they do. 

Ann & Anna: A Brief History of Mother's Day

Throughout her life, Ann had dedicated herself to mending society's wounds after the Civil War. Ann's grassroots society, with chapters called Mothers' Day Work Clubs, nursed and cared for both Confederate and Union injured soldiers. By the turn of the century, these networks of Mother's Day Work Clubs sought to educate local mothers to help promote cleanliness and sanitation to women.

When Ann (right) died in 1905, her daughter Anna wished to pay tribute to her mother. She envisioned an intimate, national holiday celebrating the importance of motherhood, where sons and daughters could honor their mothers in unison across the country. 

Her vision drew upon millennia of similar "mother-acknowledgment rituals," which date as far back as early Roman times. She and her friends wrote letters to newspapers and politicians, urging for Mother's Day, a unique and special holiday, to be recognized as a national holiday.

In her book Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother's Day, Katherine Lane Anatolini brings to Jarvis's determination, vision, and affection for her mother to life:

"I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it." — Ann Reeves Jarvis

By 1912, churches, towns and states across the country were holding their own Mother’s Day celebrations, and Jarvis had established the Mother’s Day International Association. Her grassroots campaign paid off in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Jarvis stressed the sentimental significance of the day to honor all mothers and motherhood, and grew to disdain the commercialization of the holiday, particularly from the confection, floral, and paper industries. Anatolini writes that Anna Jarvis’ original symbols, a white flower, representing truth and purity, had become re-appropriated, whereby the red carnation honored living mothers and the white carnation honored deceased mothers. By the time she died 1948, she had disavowed the holiday all together.

Daughter Reflections: How We Can Say Thank You In Modern Times

A century later, it's amazing to reflect on Jarvis's tale of tenacity, vision, and (of course) capitalism. Mother's Day is still swallowed by merchants and sellers - be it through Groupon, a local hair salon, or a department store. This commercialization process is (in my view) inevitable and natural (feel free to disagree).

I think the commercialization of Mother's Day gives us an opportunity to be mindful. How often do we spend time with our mother figures? Should we wait until Mother's Day to express appreciation, gratitude, and love?

Last year, my sister and I completely overlooked Mother's Day... I woke up hung over (I confess) and my teenage sister was...well, I think she just forgot. Oops.

After researching the history of Mother's Day, I find it inspiring to reflect on the work of Ann Jarvis, who provided unyielding service to their communities. I also think back on my own mother, who carried both my sister and I, fed us when we were babies (and dealt with our crap - literally)!

This Mother's Day, I am taping into the Jarvis's original intent. Jarvis once wrote that "a printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world," as cited in Women Who Made A Difference by Jeff Bloch. In light of that, why not skip the "Thanks Mom" mug or eCard, and write a charming, handwritten note on gorgeous stationary. Or, why not some time out of your busy schedule and take your mother to dinner.

Here are a few other non-commercial ideas to share with a new Mommy in your family.

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