Ancient Greeks and Romans held festivals in honor of mother goddesses Cybele, Rhea and Hilaria.  The early Christian festival “Mothering Sunday” was traditional in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe – the celebration occurred on the fourth Sunday in Lent when the faithful would return to their mother church for a special service.  Over time the liturgical tradition shifted to a secular holiday.

In the United States that shift was spurred in the years before the Civil War when a West Virginia woman named Ann Reeves Jarvis organized “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” to teach mothers how to better care for their children.  In 1868, after the War concluded, Jarvis organized “Mother’s Friendship Day” when mothers gathered with former Union and Confederate soldiers to promote reconciliation.   In 1870 abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation, which asked mothers world wide to unite in demanding world peace.

Mother’s Day became a national holiday in the 20th century, after Ann Reeves Jarvis died in 1905 and her daughter, Anna Jarvis, conceived of the holiday as a way to honor the sacrifices made by mothers for their children.  She envisioned families wearing white carnations while visiting mother or attending church services.  Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanamaker saw his opportunity and offered support.  Jarvis held the first Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia in May, 1906.  Simultaneously, Wanamaker sponsored a Mother’s Day event at his retail store in Philadelphia that drew thousands of people.  Support grew until, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing Mother’s Day as the second Sunday in May.

Once Mother’s Day was a national holiday more profiteers pounced.  Wanamaker’s store was joined by florists, confectioners and, eventually, commercial greeting card manufacturers (Hallmark was selling Mother’s Day cards by the early 1920s).  Jarvis was horrified at the blatant commercialization and launched an open campaign, including boycotts and law suits, against entities that used Mother’s Day for profit.  Even charities were not exempt from her ire; she was arrested for disturbing the peace while protesting American War Mothers for selling carnations to raise money.  By the time of her death in 1948, Jarvis had disowned the holiday, expended most of her personal wealth on legal fees, and lobbied the government to remove Mother’s Day from the American calendar.

Here’s a postscript:  In the United States more phone calls are made on Mother’s Day than any other day of the year.  Calls sometimes have caused phone traffic to spike by as much as 37%.  I wonder if there’s a similar phenomenon on the internet?

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