A Primer on Mother’s Day History and Traditions

May 08, 2010
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Mother’s Day originated in 1907 in the United States when Anna Jarvis created a day to honor mothers. Learn how the day has evolved over the years, how mothers are celebrated around the world and how you can honor your mom this Mother’s Day.

The Origins of Mother’s Day

After her mother’s death in 1905, Anna Jarvis sought to institute a day dedicated to the celebration of mothers across the nation. Her original idea did not conceive of Mother’s Day as a holiday but rather as “an intimate day between you and your mom,” said Katharine Antolini, a historian, in the Vancouver Sun.

The first Mother’s Day ceremony occurred on May 10, 1907 (some sources say 1908) at Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, W.Va. It was a simple, heartfelt affair, in which 500 white carnations were handed out to mothers in the congregation to symbolize the purity of the maternal heart. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day a day of national observance.

But the original purity of the holiday did not last long. Mother’s Day rapidly became a commercial event, dedicated almost exclusively to retail and marketing. The simple gifts that Jarvis initially recommended were quickly replaced by expensive presents, crowded department store sales, elaborate bouquets and fancy dinners. In 2008, the National Retail Federation estimated that Americans would spend $15 billion for Mother’s Day; dining out was expected to be the biggest expense. Due to the economic downturn, this year’s NRF survey indicated slightly lower—but still exorbitant—numbers: Americans are expected to spend an average of $123.89 per person, in comparison to $138.63 in 2008. Total Mother’s Day spending is estimated to reach $14.10 billion this year.

Mother’s Day Traditions Around the World

Mother’s Day arose as an official holiday in the United States, but its cultural origins can be traced back to ancient times, according to Suite 101. The Ancient Greeks celebrated a spring festival to honor the goddess Rhea, mother of the gods Zeus, Hades and Poseidon. After the Roman conquest, this festival evolved into a cult of Cybele, the mother goddess. Today, other countries such as Canada, Australia and India celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May; some nations, however, have different dates and traditions to celebrate mothers.

In the United Kingdom, for instance, Mother’s Day is known as Mothering Sunday, a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages and celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent. Young girls and boys who worked as servants in wealthy homes were usually allowed only one weekend to visit their homes and families, which was referred to as "going a-mothering," said Children often picked wildflowers to give to their mothers upon their return, and sometimes brought home baked goods or small presents from their wealthy patrons. That weekend’s Sunday became known as Mothering Day.

In Spain and Portugal, on the other hand, the holiday has a strong religious significance. The Iberian Peninsula celebrates Mother’s Day on Dec. 8, a day that also commemorates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, according to the site Catholic Culture. This day is chiefly dedicated to Mother Mary, the mother of Jesus and the patroness of Spain, but it also constitutes a day of celebration for all mothers, conjoining family and religion in a single, widely celebrated event.

Celebrating Mother’s Day: Gifts from the heart

Attempting to honor Anna Jarvis’ original idea for this holiday in a commercialized world, findingDulcinea recommends “5 Sites for Giving Mom a Gift From the Heart.” These suggestions propose ways in which to celebrate Mother’s Day simply and purely, as it was first intended. Writing a letter, preparing a meal or making a donation to a charitable institution in your mother’s name will undoubtedly give a special significance to the day, making it meaningful and memorable for years to come.

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