The History of Mother’s Day




By Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

CC Contribution from SV Bosak,

Today is that day of the year we all celebrate the most important people in the world – MOTHERS.  They bring us into this world, see us along our childhood and youth through the physical pains of bumps and bruises as well as the emotional pains of disappointments, lost first loves, and much more.  They are there through our adult lives – for the rest of THEIR lives – always seeing us as their babies, ready to leap and pounce on threats if possible at a moment’s notice.  They never fail us, though we often let them down.  They deserve much more than a day.

But this day has a very long history.  It is by no means a modern creation but has existed since ancient times and simply morphed through the centuries in various incarnations.  Here is that history.


Rhea / Wikimedia Commons

In Classical Greek mythology, Rhea was the “mother of the gods”.  Greeks celebrated her annually in a spring festival with offerings of honey-cakes, fine drinks, and flowers at dawn.  Daughter of Ouranos (the sky) and Gaia (the Earth), and wife to Cronus (her brother-husband), she came to be recognized as the mother of the Olympian gods and goddesses.  In a bid to take over due to the envy of his father’s power, in Hesiod’s Theogony, Cronus castrated his own father as well as Rhea’s and they took their seats as king and queen of the gods.

Having unseated his own father, Cronus knew the threat his own children could present to him.  He therefore swallowed all children he had with Rhea.  However, Rhea pulled a quick one on Cronus.  She managed to hide one of their children in the Dictean Cave on Mount Ida in Crete as soon as he was born, and this was Zeus.  She then gave Cronus a stone wrapped in the swaddling of an infant, and he swallowed that instead of Zeus.  Upon reaching a mature age, Zeus emerged from the cave and launched a revolt defeating Cronus, who he then made regurgitate all of his siblings – Demeter, Hades, Hera, Hestia, and Poseidon.

Zeus and his siblings, in the Titanomachy, overthrew Cronus and the Titans.  The Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus, but accounts differ as to the fate of Cronus.  Homer had him imprisoned with the Titans.  Orphic poems had him eternally confined in the cave of Nyx.  Pindar had him released and made King of Elysium by Zeus.  Various other sources have him dealt with in various other ways, including release and castration.

Cybele01  Cybele02

Statuette of Cybele on a cart drawn by lions / Metropolitan Museum (left)…Cybele with her traditional attributes (cornucopia, lion and crown in the shape of city walls) / Wikimedia Commons (right)

For the Romans, their mother goddess (Magna Mater, Great Mother) was Cybele.  Romans knew her as Magna Mater deorum Idaea (great Idaean mother of the gods), which was the equivalent of Greek Meter Theon Idaia (Mother of the Gods, from Mount Ida) for Rhea.  A temple was built for Cybele, and each year in spring – in the Festival of Hilaria – gifts were taken to her temple to please her.

Cybele would have cults and other temples throughout the empire, and Augustus made significant use of her in his moral and familial reforms.  She was celebrated in the annual Megalesia.


Mary Theotokos (“Mother of God”)

The emergence and rise of Christianity of course eventually kept these celebrations eliminated due to their pagan source but eventually – because such a long-celebrated event could never be completely sequestered – turned to the same strategy as they had for other days and simply adopted it with a Christian theme.

During the 16th century, England and other parts of Western Europe celebrated “Mothering Sunday” on the fourth Sunday of Lent (the 40 days leading up to Easter) as a way to honor the mothers of England. Many of England’s poor lived and worked as servants for the wealthy, far away from their homes and families. On Mothering Sunday, servants were given the day off to return home and spend the day with their mothers. A special cake, called the “mothering cake,” was often baked to add to the festivities.  Children picked wild flowers on the way to visit their mothers to place in the church or give to their mothers. Eventually, the religious tradition evolved into the Mothering Sunday secular tradition of giving gifts to mothers.

Remainder from SV Bosak at

Howe03  Howe04

Julia Ward Howe / Wikimedia Commons

The story of modern Mother’s Day begins in the peace movement and as a day recognizing women’s social action.

In the United States, Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), a Boston writer, pacifist, suffragist, and author of the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, first suggested a Mothers’ Day in 1872. She saw it as a day dedicated to peace.

Howe was greatly distressed to see Europe plunged into the Franco-Prussian War so soon after her generation had suffered through the American Civil War. For several years she worked toward the recognition of a “Mothers’ Day for Peace” on June 2. She organized meetings in Boston, MA as a rally for women, whom she believed bore the loss of human life more harshly than anyone else. Men showed little interest in her ideas, but she appealed to war mothers, the women who supported husbands and sons at war, pleading, “Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone bear and know the cost?”

Although her version of Mothers’ Day never really caught on, Howe went on to head the American branch of the Woman’s International Peace Association, which observed a day dedicated to peace.

Mother's Day Founder Anna M. Jarvis  Jarvis01

Anna Jarvis / Wikimedia Commons

The official observance of Mother’s Day in its present form is credited to Anna Jarvis (1864-1948) of Philadelphia, PA. She wanted to honor the memory of her mother, Mrs. Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, who died in 1905. Before getting into the story, it’s important to clear up two popular misconceptions. According to historical records provided by the curator at the Anna Jarvis Birthplace Museum near Grafton, WV, Anna Jarvis’ mother was not, as is popularly believed, also named Anna. Her mother was simply Ann. Second, Anna Jarvis’ name has no middle initial.

Mrs. Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis (sometimes referred to as “Mother Jarvis” to distinguish her from her daughter Anna) organized several “Mothers Day Work Clubs” in the 1850s in the West Virginia area (the name of the clubs was later changed to “Mothers Friendship Clubs”). Mrs. Jarvis lost eight children under the age of seven (she gave birth to a total of twelve children), and wanted to combat the poor health and sanitation conditions that existed in many areas and contributed to the high mortality rate of children. The social action brigades provided medicine for the poor, nursing care for the sick, and arranged help and proper medical care for those ill with tuberculosis.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Mrs. Jarvis called together four of her Clubs and asked them to make a pledge that friendship and goodwill would not be a victim of the conflict between the states. In a display of compassion, courage, and friendship, the members of these Clubs nursed soldiers from both sides and saved many lives.

After the Civil War, Mrs. Jarvis worked as a peacemaker encouraging families to set aside differences created by the polarization of the war. In 1868, she organized a “Mothers Friendship Day” to bring together families that had been divided by the conflict. Mrs. Jarvis spoke about the purpose of the day:

To revive the dormant filial love and gratitude we owe to those who gave us birth. To be a home tie for the absent. To obliterate family estrangement. To create a bond of brotherhood through the wearing of a floral badge. To make us better children by getting us closer to the hearts of our good mothers. To brighten the lives of good mothers. To have them know we appreciate them, though we do not show it as often as we ought… Mothers Day is to remind us of our duty before it is too late. This day is intended that we may make new resolutions for a more active thought to our dear mothers. By words, gifts, acts of affection, and in every way possible, give her pleasure, and make her heart glad every day, and constantly keep in memory Mothers Day.

If friends and family were to be reconnected, Mrs. Jarvis believed it had to be done by appealing to that love and respect that everyone has for their mother. With great skill and courage, she created a very emotional event, with many people embracing and in tears at the end. Several other Mothers Friendship Days were held thereafter.

Mrs. Jarvis’ service to her community was not lost on her daughter, Anna. When her mother passed away, Anna was at her graveside and recalled something her mother often said:

I hope 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.

Then and there, Anna made a promise to her mother:

The time and place is here and the someone is your daughter, and by the grace of God, you shall have that Mothers Day.

Up until her own death, Anna continually referred to her mother as the real originator of Mother’s Day, despite the fact that it was Anna herself who worked tirelessly over several years to make it a national reality.

It began in 1907 when Anna had a small gathering of friends in her home to commemorate her mother’s life. She announced the idea of a national day to honor mothers. In 1908, Anna persuaded her mother’s church in Grafton, WV to celebrate Mother’s Day on the anniversary of her mother’s death, the second Sunday of May. It was to be a day to honor all mothers, and also a day to remember the work of peacemaking, reconciliation, and social action against poverty started by her mother. That same year, Mother’s Day was also celebrated in Philadelphia.

The role of women was changing rapidly during this period. During the first two decades of the 1900s (often referred to as the Progressive Era), women were entering into community building and political activities. Like other women of the time, Anna did not denigrate the role of mother, wife, and homemaker, but expanded the role into the public arena. Women saw government as being “enlarged housekeeping” and used their skills to help improve it. The definition of motherhood at the time gave women a moral responsibility outside their immediate home. Women who participated in civil rights and welfare reform saw this work as essentially maternal in nature. Women worked to ease social ills; they became scholars and scientists; they fought for the rights of various groups of people; and they raised their voices to have the right to vote. Many of these reformers were mothers as well as activists, but their contributions as mothers were often overlooked. The creation of Mother’s Day as a national holiday was to restore the status of mother as a cornerstone of the family and of the nation.

Anna and her supporters tirelessly wrote to ministers, business people, and politicians in their quest to establish a national Mother’s Day to honor all mothers. By 1911, Mother’s Day was celebrated in almost every state. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made it official: Mother’s Day would be a national holiday held each year on the second Sunday in May. He stated that mothers were “the greatest source of the country’s strength and inspiration.” He ordered the United States flag displayed on all public buildings to honor mothers. Unfortunately, many officials of the time turned the intent of the holiday away from women’s activism and instead emphasized women’s role in the home and family. The apostrophe was moved so that “Mothers’ Day” as a day for organized social and political action by all mothers became “Mother’s Day” a day for celebrating the private service of one’s own particular mother.

Anna went on to incorporate herself as the Mother’s Day International Association and turned her attention to persuading other nations to celebrate Mother’s Day. Eventually, Mother’s Day would be observed in over fifty countries.

It was Anna Jarvis who also began the custom of wearing a carnation on Mother’s Day – colored if your mother is living, and white if she’s not. It was intended to be a simple, inexpensive symbol of love and respect for the person who loved you before you even knew how to spell the word.

Unfortunately, the story of Anna Jarvis has a bittersweet ending. At first, people observed Mother’s Day by attending church, writing letters to their mothers, and spending time together. As the years passed though, more people began buying cards, presents, and flowers. Anna felt that Mother’s Day became much too commercialized. She was outraged when the price of carnations rose significantly and attacked florists as “profiteers.” She filed a lawsuit to stop a 1923 Mother’s Day festival and was even arrested for disturbing the peace at a war mothers’ convention where women were selling carnations to raise money. Said Anna: “This is not what I intended. I wanted a day of sentiment, not profit.”

Years later, in a care home, Anna told a reporter that she was sorry she had ever started Mother’s Day. And yet, even though she had never had children herself, she was the mother of Mother’s Day, and each Mother’s Day her room would be filled with thousands of letters and cards from all over the world. One of them she prized highly, and hung on her wall. It read: “I am six years old and I love my mother very much. I am sending you this because you started Mother’s Day.” Carefully sewn to this letter from a little boy was a $1 bill.

Anna Jarvis died in 1948, at the age of 84.

Mother’s Day is the legacy of Anna Jarvis and her mother Ann Jarvis. At the heart of the traditions around Mother’s Day are themes of honoring mothers, compassion, peace, reconciliation, and social action.

Mother’s Day Today Around the Globe

Today, Mother’s Day is celebrated (officially and unofficially) in dozens of countries, although on different dates. In the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Turkey, Australia, Belgium, and Japan it is celebrated on the second Sunday of May.

In Great Britain, Mothering Sunday falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent. But Mother’s Day is now observed in England as it is in North America, and the traditions associated with Mothering Sunday have been largely forgotten.

In Mexico, Mother’s Day is always celebrated on May 10. When the holiday falls on a weekday, mothers take the day off from work and children stay home from school. Other countries that celebrate Mother’s Day on May 10 include Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates.

In Spain and Portugal, Mother’s Day is celebrated on December 8, which is also the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Mothers are honored along with the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Other dates for Mother’s Day celebrations: Norway – second Sunday in February; France – last Sunday in May; Sweden – last Sunday in May; South Africa – first Sunday in May.