Despite the commercialism of Mother’s Day today, this holiday was originally rooted in Christianity. The first hint of Mother’s Day began centuries ago with Mothering Sunday. On this church holiday, servants were given the day off to visit family and return to their “mother” church. Families would reunite and go to church at the main church or cathedral in the community. The day also became associated with a time when children we supposed to honor their mothers as those who were returning home would often bring a few wildflowers, fruitcakes or other small gifts with them to give to their mothers.
Mother Sunday had almost entirely died out by the 19th century, but the tradition was revived in Europe after World War II. The American Mother’s Day, however, took root in the 1800’s.
During the Civil War, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, who was a Christian woman, worked to promote healthier and more hygienic homes and to emphasize the importance of mothers. To this end, she began a series of “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” in 1858 in Virginia. These clubs eventually became a national movement. At these clubs, Ann would teach mothers about safe sanitation practices to use at home as well as basic nursing skills. Ann had learned these skills from her brother, James Reeves, who was a doctor known for his work on Virginia’s typhoid fever epidemics.
As a mother who had lost nine of her thirteen children, Ann wanted to help reduce the spread of disease and lower infant mortality. The clubs worked to educate women, raise money to buy medicine and find women willing to work in families where the mother was ill. They began inspecting milk as well.
When the Civil War broke out a handful of years later, the medical skills and hygienic practices that women had learned from Ann saved numerous lives from both the Confederacy and the Union. Ann asked her fellow club mates to remain neutral and help soldiers from both sides of the conflict. Mothers’ Day Work Clubs were allowed into the camps of both the Confederate and the Union troops when typhoid fever and measles ravaged the soldiers.
When the war was over, Mothers’ Day Work Clubs and the willingness of women to save soldiers from both sides of the conflict helped heal communities where neighbors had fought against each other during the war. Despite threats of violence, Ann staged a “Mothers Friendship Day” event at the Taylor County Courthouse in Pruntytown in 1868. She called for unity and reconciliation. Musicians played both “Dixie” and the “Star-Spangled Banner.” At the end of the event, both Confederate and Union families joined together to sing “Auld Lang Syne.”
Ann was involved in the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church for much of her life. She was involved in the church’s construction and served as the Primary Sunday School Department superintendent for 25 years. She was also a popular speaker who lectured on religion, public health and the importance of women and mothers.
In 1905, Ann died following a long battle with heart problems. One of her surviving children, Anna Marie Jarvis, was moved by Ann’s work and her emphasis on mothers. Anna believed that children often failed to appreciate their mothers while they were still alive. Anna supposedly took her inspiration for an official mother’s holiday from a prayer that her mother once spoke: “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.”
Anna achieved her mother’s wish three years after Ann died. On May 10, 1908, Anna held a memorial service at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia to honor not just her mother but all mothers. This was the first official Mother’s Day, and the location was later the site of the International Mother’s Day Shrine. The International Mother’s Day Shrine was designated a National Historic Landmark on October 5, 1992.
Anna gave away 500 white carnations to those who attended the first Mother’s Day service. When she spoke about it at the Wanamaker’s Store Auditorium in Philadelphia, her speech brought her audience to tears.
To Anna, the most important element of Mother’s Day was the sentimental aspect of the holiday. While she valued the symbolism of tangible items such as the white carnation, Ann was vehemently opposed to the commercialization of the holiday. Unfortunately, her fondness for tangible symbols made Mother’s Day even easier to commercialize. Florists increased the prices of white carnations as Mother’s Day became more popular. Soon, white carnations represented deceased mothers and red carnations represented living mothers. The gift card industry took advantage of the holiday as well, much to Anna’s fury. According to Anna, “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.” She was similarly disgusted by the way people continued to buy chocolates, candies and other confections for their mothers. “You take a box [of sweets] to Mother–and then eat most of it yourself,” Anna said. “A pretty sentiment.”
To Anna, the holiday was meant to remain sentimental and rooted in the Christian faith of herself and her own mother. She grew angry enough at the commercialization of “her” holiday that she attempted to have the holiday rescinded. Obviously, she was unsuccessful. The Christian roots of Mother’s Day were lost. Though Mother’s Day is still highly commercial, the sentiment of loving and recognizing mothers has thankfully remained. It is just shown with a dozen roses instead of a single white carnation.