The Origin of American Mother's Day



Mother’s Day is a holiday honoring motherhood that is observed in different forms throughout the world. The American incarnation of Mother’s Day was created by Anna Jarvis in 1908 and became an official U.S. holiday in 1914. Jarvis would later denounce the holiday’s commercialization and spent the latter part of her life trying to remove it from the calendar. [2]

The majority of countries that celebrate Mother's Day do so on the second Sunday of May. On this day, it is common for Mothers to be celebrated with presents and special attention from their families, friends and loved ones. But it wasn't always this way... [1]


Goddess Isis - Early Egyptian Roots: One of the earliest historical records of a society celebrating a Mother deity can be found among the ancient Egyptians, who held an annual festival to honor the goddess Isis. As the story goes, after Isis’ brother-husband Osiris was slain and dismembered in 13 pieces by their jealous brother Seth, Isis re-assembled Osiris’ body and used it to impregnate herself. She then gave birth to Horus, who she hid among the reeds lest he be slaughtered by Seth. Horus grew up and defeated Seth, and then became the first ruler of a unified Egypt. Thus Isis earned her stature as the Mother of the pharaohs. It is interesting to note that the Mother and Son imagery of Isis and Horus — in which Isis cradles and suckles her son — is strikingly similar to that of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. [1] 

Cybele and Rhea - Ancient Mother Goddesses (Turkey & Greece): Isis may have been early on the scene in Rome, but it was the emergence of two other mother goddesses, Cybele from Phrygia in ancient Anatolia (modern Turkey), and Rhea from Greece, that perhaps laid the most important foundation for the worship and celebration of motherhood in Europe. The Phrygian goddess Cybele has roots dating back 6,000 years to Neolithic times. Phrygians celebrated a "Mother Goddess," whose realm was the earth's mountains and caverns, natural surroundings, and wild animals. References to Cybele as "Potnia Theron" (a term used by Homer to describe female divinities associated with animals) confirm to her ancient Neolithic roots as "Mother of the Animals." By around 600 BC, worship of the Phrygian Mother Goddess had been adopted into much of Asia Minor, and parts of Greece. The Greeks named her "Cybele" and also called her "Matar" for "mother." At the same time, some Greeks already worshiped another mother goddess: Rhea, the Greek mother of the Gods. Rhea was born from the union of the Greek goddess Gaia, the personification of Earth, and Uranus, the sky god. The two mother goddesses Cybele (above) and Rhea (left) were so similar in their nature and iconography that they became closely, almost interchangeably, intertwined in Greek life and culture. [1]

Magna Mater and Rome: After a meteor shower and failed harvest seemed to predict doom for the Roman republic, Rome officially adapted Cybele as its own Mother Goddess. Eventually, the Romans and the Greeks simply referred to her as Magna Mater, the Great Mother. The Roman festival of Megalesia, to celebrate the Magna Mater goddess, was held from April 4-10, in close proximity to the Vernal Equinox (March 20/21), and the Roman festivals of Hilaria (March 15-28), in celebration of Cybele. [1] 

European Celebration: By the 16th Century, as Ancient Roman religious and cultural traditions in Europe and England gave way to the spread of Christianity, Hilaria celebrations became part of Laetare Sunday - the fourth Sunday of Lent in the Christian liturgical calendar (the 40 days of fasting preceding Easter Sunday). Early Christians in England initially used the day to honor the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ ... and the church in which they were baptized, which they knew as their “Mother Church.” [1]

Individual Mothers Recognized (Mothering Sunday - UK): In the 17th Century, a clerical decree in England broadened the celebration from one focused on the church and the Virgin Mary, to include real Mothers, referring to the occasion as Mothering Day. Mothering Sunday is celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent. By the 1920's and '30s, the centuries-old traditions of Mothering Sunday had started to fade in the UK. Then came World War II. During those dark and trying days, North American soldiers - lonely and missing their girlfriends, wives and mums - revived interest in Mothering Sunday by celebrating their own version of this day: "Mother's Day." Reminded by visiting solidiers of just how special this day still was, UK families once again began celebrating Mothering Sunday with enthusiasm. [1]

Over time the Mothering Sunday tradition shifted into a more secular holiday, and children would present their mothers with flowers and other tokens of appreciation. This custom eventually faded in popularity before merging with the American Mother’s Day in the 1930s and 1940s. [3]


When the first English settlers came to America, they discontinued the tradition of Mothering Day. While the British holiday would live on, the American Mother’s Day would be invented — with an entirely new history — centuries later. One explanation for the settlers’ discontinuation of Mothering Day was that they just didn’t have time; they lived under harsh conditions and were forced to work long hours in order to survive. Another possibility, however, is that Mothering Day conflicted with their Puritan ideals. Fleeing England to practice a more conservative Christianity without being persecuted, the pilgrims ignored the more secular holidays, focusing instead on a no-frills devotion to God. [1]

Julia Ward Howe's Mother's Day Proclamation of 1870: The first North American Mother’s Day was conceptualized with Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870. Despite having penned The Battle Hymn of the Republic twelve years earlier, Howe had become so distraught by the death and carnage of the Civil War that she called on Mother’s to come together and protest what she saw as the futility of their Sons killing the Sons of other Mothers. At one point Howe even proposed converting July 4th into Mother’s Day, in order to dedicate the nation’s anniversary to peace. Eventually, however, June 2nd was designated for the celebration. In 1873 women’s groups in 18 North American cities observed this new Mother’s holiday. Howe initially funded many of these celebrations, but most of them died out once she stopped footing the bill. The city of Boston, however, would continue celebrating Howe’s holiday for 10 more years. Despite the decided failure of her holiday, Howe had nevertheless planted the seed that would blossom into what we know as Mother’s Day today. A West Virginia women’s group led by Anna Reeves Jarvis began to celebrate an adaptation of Howe’s holiday. In order to re-unite families and neighbors that had been divided between the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War, the group held a Mother’s Friendship Day. [1]

In 1873 Howe campaigned for a “Mother’s Peace Day” to be celebrated every June 2. [3]

Anna M. Jarvis's Mother's Day in 1908/the tradition of Carnations: After Anna Reeves Jarvis died, her daughter Anna M. Jarvis campaigned for the creation of an official Mother’s Day in remembrance of her mother and in honor of peace. In 1908, Anna petitioned the superintendent of the church where her Mother had spent over 20 years teaching Sunday School. Her request was honored, and on May 10, 1908, the first official Mother's Day celebration took place at Andrew's Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia and a church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The West Virginia event drew a congregation of 407 and Anna Jarvis arranged for white carnations — her Mother’s favorite flower — to adorn the patrons. Two carnations were given to every Mother in attendance. Today, white carnations are used to honor deceased Mothers, while pink or red carnations pay tribute to Mothers who are still alive. [1]

In the years before the Civil War (1861-65), Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia helped start “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to teach local women how to properly care for their children. These clubs later became a unifying force in a region of the country still divided over the Civil War. In 1868 Jarvis organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” at which mothers gathered with former Union and Confederate soldiers to promote reconciliation. [3]

Following the success of her first Mother’s Day, Jarvis—who remained unmarried and childless her whole life—resolved to see her holiday added to the national calendar. Arguing that American holidays were biased toward male achievements, she started a massive letter writing campaign to newspapers and prominent politicians urging the adoption of a special day honoring motherhood. By 1912 many states, towns and churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday, and Jarvis had established the Mother’s Day International Association to help promote her cause. Her persistence paid off in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Anna Jarvis had originally conceived of Mother’s Day as a day of personal celebration between mothers and families. Her version of the day involved wearing a white carnation as a badge and visiting one’s mother or attending church services. But once Mother’s Day became a national holiday, it was not long before florists, card companies and other merchants capitalized on its popularity. [3]

US Government Adoption: In 1908 a U.S. Senator from Nebraska, Elmer Burkett, proposed making Mother's Day a national holiday at the request of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). The proposal was defeated, but by 1909 forty-six states were holding Mother's Day services as well as parts of Canada and Mexico. Anna Jarvis quit working and devoted herself full time to the creation of Mother's Day, endlessly petitioning state governments, business leaders, women groups, churches and other institutions and organizations. She finally convinced the World's Sunday School Association to back her, a key influence over state legislators and congress. In 1912 West Virginia became the first state to officially recognize Mother's Day, and in 1914 Woodrow Wilson signed it into national observance, declaring the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day. [1]

Other early Mother’s Day pioneers include Juliet Calhoun Blakely, a temperance activist who inspired a local Mother’s Day in Albion, Michigan, in the 1870s. The duo of Mary Towles Sasseen and Frank Hering, meanwhile, both worked to organize a Mothers’ Day in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some have even called Hering “the father of Mothers’ Day.” [3]

By the time of Anna M. Jarvis's death, over 40 countries observed Mother’s Day. Today that number exceeds 70. In many countries, the U.S. version of Mother's Day was imported with little cultural adaptation. Others, including countries whose tradition stems from the English Mothering Day, maintain traditions quite different from those of the United States. Still others have ignored or abandoned the more religious and commercial notions of Mother's Day, choosing instead to focus on women's issues and women's rights by celebrating International Women's Day. [3]


Here is a page listing when Mother's Day type holidays are celebrated all over the world:  [2]

Here is a Wiki page of international traditions: [4]