History of Mother’s Day- who was the real founder?

Originally Published April 27, 2010

As spring moves in and May is only a few days away, many are thinking of Mother’s Day and what they can do to celebrate their mothers. But how did Mother’s day really start, and who started it?

Conflicting reports abound. One claim is ancient, going back to ancient Greece. Another ancient Egypt, and yet another in Ancient Rome. Early Christianity is also credited with starting Mother’s day Another credits Julia ward Howe during the Civil War, and yet another credits Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis during the 1850s. But which is correct, or are they all correct?

In ancient Greece, Mother’s Day got its start as the worship of the goddess Rhea. Rhea was a Titan, daughter of Gaia, and mother of many in the Greek pantheon. As wife of Kronos, she represents female fertility (including menstruation), motherhood, milk, and of comfort and ease. Images of Rhea show her as a matronly woman with a crown and attended by lions. Rhea’s day was around March 22nd, which coincidentally coincides with the Roman celebration of Magna Mater, which started March 15th and lasted through March 28th.

Magna Mater – the great mother – is tied to the Phrygian goddess Cybele, who is their earth mother. It is from Cybele that Magna Mater is developed, as well as being celebrated in her own right at the same time. Characteristic of every other earth mother, she is in charge of fertility and motherhood. Although she is tied with Rhea, she had a cult following of her own in which is referred to as Meter Theon Idaia – Mother of the Gods, from Mount Ida. Cybele is worshipped almost fanatically and is an accepted cult in the 5th century BCE in Greece. Some of her celebrants would go as far as self castration and other boisterous activities, and had to be actively discouraged, but the calmer followers celebrated her time with the eating of honey cakes in the morning, and the giving of flowers in the afternoon.
In Rome, Cybele was brought in near the end of the third century BCE, after consulting with the oracle of Delphi, who told the Romans that the Punic war could be ended if she was brought to Rome in the form of a statue to represent the goddess. Accompanied by matrons, Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica met the boat at the port of Ostia, receiving the statute and turning it over to the matrons, who conveyed it to the temple on Palantine Hill. The date was April 12th, and for a time the date of her celebration, until it was turned into the Magna Mater celebration in march, called the Hilaria. Celebrations were also held on April 4th for Cybele as the Megalensia. Many ceremonies surrounded Cybele, and her worship spread to many places in western Europe.

Yet another goddess involved in the development of Mother’s day is Isis, who is considered the mother of the pharaohs, through her son Horus, who united all of Egypt under his rule. Her festival was held in the late fall, and was also used by the Romans to mark the beginning of winter.
Realistically, in every pantheon in Europe there is a “mother” goddess and the worship of this mother figure is inextricably intertwined with the religion of other cultures alive during the fifth through second centuries BCE.

In early Christianity in England, the day was celebrated to honor the mother of Jesus – Mary. This was expanded upon by the church, and celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent. Some sources say it was meant to honor all the mothers of England, others say that it was in support of the “mother” church. In the 1600s, this meant that all mothers were given that day off from work or servitude and allowed to spend time with their families. A “mothering” cake was often served to help celebrate these industrious mothers. However, with the settling of the Americas, English settlers dropped the tradition of “Mothering Sunday” and left it to be reinvented centuries later by two women of same idea, but different purposes for Mother’s day.

Three women are credited with being the founder of Mother’s day- Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, Anne Jarvis, and Julia Ward Howe. Working for different reasons, but with the intent of organizing and assisting women prior to and during the U.S. Civil War, Anne Marie Reeves Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe put a start to what we now know as the modern Mother’s Day.

Anne Marie Reeves Jarvis was an Appalacian housewife, mother of 11 children, of whom only four made it to adulthood. Mrs. Jarvis was very active in community and church events, and founded an organization called Mother’s day Work Clubs to help defeat the effects of poverty, poor nutrition and poor sanitation that was prevalent in her community and surrounding communities. Her main concern – since her own family fell victim to this – was to help reduce infant mortality. Her clubs were highly successful and achieved some success.

During the Civil War, the Mother’s day Work Clubs took on a new aspect; tending to wounded soldiers. Mrs. Jarvis urged the women to overlook which side the soldier was fighting for, and instead focus on trying to save the soldier’s life.

 

Three women are credited with being the founder of Mother’s day- Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, Anne Jarvis, and Julia Ward Howe. Working for different reasons, but with the intent of organizing and assisting women prior to and during the U.S. Civil War, Anne Marie Reeves Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe put a start to what we now know as the modern Mother’s Day.

Anne Marie Reeves Jarvis was an Appalacian housewife, mother of 11 children, of whom only four made it to adulthood. Mrs. Jarvis was very active in community and church events, and founded an organization called Mother’s day Work Clubs to help defeat the effects of poverty, poor nutrition and poor sanitation that was prevalent in her community and surrounding communities. Her main concern – since her own family fell victim to this – was to help reduce infant mortality. Her clubs were highly successful and achieved some success.

During the Civil War, the Mother’s day Work Clubs took on a new aspect; tending to wounded soldiers. Mrs. Jarvis urged the women to overlook which side the soldier was fighting for, and instead focus on trying to save the soldier’s life.

In 1865, right after the war was over, Mrs. Jarvis organized a Mother’s Friendship Day in Pruntytown, W.V. at the courthouse, in an attempt to bring together the neighbors and soldiers of all political leanings, to celebrate friendship and togetherness. This event was so successful, it continued to be celebrated for several years.

In 1902 when her husband died, she moved with her two daughters Anna and Lillie to Philadelphia to live with one of her sons. Mrs. Jarvis herself died in 1905. She is credited with having put a start the celebration of mothers and their efforts.

 

At the same time, Julia Ward Howe, devistated by the destruction of the Civil War, wrote a proclamation in 1870 to call upon mothers to promote peace. The following is her proclamation:

“Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts,
Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears
Say firmly:

“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of
charity, mercy and patience.

“We women of one country
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says, “Disarm, Disarm!”
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice!
Blood does not wipe out dishonor
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have of ten forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war.

Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions.
The great and general interests of peace.”

Mrs. Howe presented this proclamation in the U.S. and abroad; in 1872 she traveled to London to promote an International Women’s Congress. Originally Mrs. Howe was going to ask that July 4th be converted to this celebration fo peace and motherhood, but realizing that this was not going to happen, she settled on June 2nd as the day oo celebration. In 1873, women’s groups in 18 cities celebrated this first Mother’s Peace Day, but these celebrations were funded by Mrs. Howe herself, and when her funding stopped, so did the celebrations. The exception was Boston, who continued to celebrate for another ten years.

Anne Jarvis was the one that really got Mother’s Day off the ground and part of the annual semi holidays we now celebrate. Daughter of Anne Marie Reeves Jarvis, Anne Jarvis knew at the age of 12 that her mother was special and became determined to have a national day of celebration to honor her mother.

After her mother’s death in 1905, she became even more determined to make her mother’s wish of a day to celebrate mothers of the country. On the second anniversary of her mother’s death, she led a small tribute to her mother in Andrews Methodist church. Through her efforts, by the next year, Mother’s Day was being celebrated in her home city of Philadelphia.

A letter writing campaign began; Miss Jarvis and her supporters wrote letters to government officials and prominent businessmen, extolling the virtues of having a Mother’s Day celebration. Miss Jarvis spoke at every event she could, promoting all mothers as deserving of respect and honor. Although initial response was poor, she kept at it, and by 1909, 44 states celebrated the day, as did Puerto Rico, Canada and Mexico. By 1911, almost every state celebrated, and in 1914, president Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it a national holiday, held on the second Sunday of each May.

Many people took to wearing white or red carnations on Mother’s Day to honor their mother, a practice initiated by Miss Jarvis, who chose the white to represent the purity of a mother’s heart. White came to symbolize a mother who had passed away, and red a living mother.

However, Mother’s Day did not turn out exactly as she wished; it rapidly became commercialized and, in her opinion, about money rather than honor and respect. She disliked the commercialization so much, she came to regret having ever started the day.

Although this became a disappointment to Anna Jarvis, to the rest of us it has become a day to celebrate our mothers, to give them a day off from the work of every day, to pamper them and show them the love we feel for them that may not always get shown the rest of the year.

 

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