A Brief History of Mother's Day

| 7 min read

Every year we take a day to show our love and appreciation for the most special, hard working and irreplaceable of people – the one known simply as mum. This cherished day is ingrained in our culture and is celebrated by most countries around the world, but the phrase ‘Mother’s Day’ itself isn’t as old as you might think. As the wonderful day itself approaches on Sunday March 14th 2021, we’re taking a look at the fascinating history of the celebration, from both a British and an American perspective.

You may be unaware of this fact, but Mother’s Day is celebrated on different days in the UK and the USA, and indeed all around the globe the date of the celebration can vary a surprising amount. The phrase ‘Mother’s Day’ itself is of American origin, and first came into use in the early 20th century. Before this, there had been precursors to the day, such as a ‘Mother’s Friendship Day’ in 1868, organised by Ann Reeves Jarvis, and a ‘Mother’s Peace Day’ in 1873, organised by Julia Ward Howe – both in the USA.

There were other efforts to organise a unified Mother’s Day in the late 19th century, though they tended to just take hold in the single state or city in which they were organised. When Ann Reeves Jarvis died on May 9th 1905, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, sought to continue her mother’s work and wanted to establish a day on which the efforts and sacrifices that mothers made for their children were celebrated and honoured. The first Mother’s Day of this kind took place in May 1908 at a church in Grafton, West Virginia, where Anna Jarvis lived, and simultaneously at a department store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, over 300 miles away. This was no coincidence, as the owner of the department store, John Wanamaker, was the financial backer Anna Jarvis found to get the idea off the ground.

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Encouraged by the success and enthusiasm for this first day, Anna began a large-scale letter-writing campaign to newspapers, politicians and businesses to make the holiday a permanent part of the calendar. Things quickly grew, and by 1912 most states had adopted the celebration. It took only two more years for the day to become ratified by the government, when President Woodrow Wilson signed an official proclamation stating that the day would henceforth take place on the second Sunday of May every year, across the entire country. The timing was very special to Anna Jarvis as it was near the day on which her own pioneering mother had passed away. She trademarked the phrase ‘Mother’s Day’ around this time, and was very particular that the apostrophe should be placed before the ‘s’ in ‘mother’s’, meaning that the day was about celebrating one’s own mother, not celebrating all the mothers in the country in general. This spelling has remained standard ever since, a testament to Anna’s hope that the sentimentality of the day would remain at the forefront of the celebration.

Anna Jarvis was initially proud of the celebration she had worked so hard to found and promote, but in her later life, she was increasingly at odds with the commercialisation of the event and immensely disliked that the buying of cards, flowers and chocolates had become associated with the day. She passed away in 1948, sadly having never had children of her own. But she left a vast legacy to all the mothers of the world – a day on which, according to her founding principle, each mother and her achievements would be celebrated by her children.

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The history of the celebration in the United States is also the history of the phrase ‘Mother’s Day’ itself, and over time much of the world has come to refer to the celebration by this title. But here in Britain and in other parts of the world, the day has a much different origin. The idea of celebrating a maternal idol stretches back to the days of Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome when festivals would be held at a specific time of year to celebrate motherly goddesses and idols. By the time of 16th century Britain, the fourth Sunday of the Christian period of Lent came to be known as ‘Laetare Sunday’, a day on which people would visit the church in which they’d been christened, or their ‘mother church’. Making this special annual pilgrimage came to be known as ‘mothering’, and over time the day became known as ‘Mothering Sunday’.

Because it was one of the very few days of the year when those working in service would be granted a day off, it was often the only time of the year a mother would see all her children at the same time. Often the children would bring small gifts to their mothers too, and the meaning of Mothering Sunday started to shift from ‘visiting the mother church’ to simply visiting one’s mother. This tradition continued for many more years, but with changing times and lifestyles, the day was being observed less and less in Britain and Europe by the start of the 20th century.

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Constance Penswick-Smith, a vicar’s daughter from Nottinghamshire, not only noticed the decline in marking this traditional day but also learned of the work being done by Anna Jarvis in the United States to promote the celebration of motherhood. In 1914, the year the American Mother’s Day was officially added to the US calendar, Constance Penswick-Smith created the Mothering Sunday Movement in the UK and started promoting both the traditional religious aspects of the day along with the newer, US-style celebration that included cards and gift giving. The British event stayed fixed to the middle Sunday of Lent, which was also by this time sometimes known as ‘Refreshment Sunday’, as it often saw a slight relaxing of Lenten vows, allowing for the baking of special cakes to celebrate the getting together of the whole family. Just as it had in America, the commercial potential of the day meant many retailers helped to push and promote the day – which slowly but surely started to take on the Mother’s Day name over the traditional title of Mothering Sunday. By the 1950s the day was being celebrated all across the UK in much the same way as the American day, albeit on a completely different date and with an entirely different history.

As fascinating as the story of the event is on both sides of the Atlantic, the most important message is that at its heart, the day is about saying thank you to the person that Anna Jarvis described as, “The woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.” Everybody has their own way of making Mother’s Day special, whether that’s giving mum a day off to relax, treating her to a spa day or day out with the family, or giving her flowers, chocolates or indeed jewellery. But it’s the sentiment that’s most important – saying thank you and showing your appreciation for your mum for all they’ve done for you. In this spirit, we hope all the mums that are reading this have a wonderful day on March 31st.

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