Respecting the Institution of Motherhood

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day and, for reasons that will become apparent, I waited to write and publish this column until after this “holiday.” While I certainly respect the institution of motherhood and believe mothers everywhere deserve our respect and admiration, the Mother’s Day holiday, has a rather strange and contrived history. Allow me to elucidate.

Various pseudo-authorities have argued that the honoring of mothers with a special day dates back to ancient Greece, presumably in order to bestow greater grandeur to the holiday by providing it with a long and rich history. The argument they provide points to an annual event the Greeks held to honor Rhea, the wife of Cronus and the mother of all the gods. The key element here, of course, is that the ancient Greeks were not honoring mothers in general, or motherhood in principle, they were simply honoring one of their gods.

Likewise, the Roman Empire’s festival of Hilaria is often cited as a precursor to our Mother’s Day. This festival, which took place over a three-day period in March, honored the goddess Cybele, another mother of the gods. Thus, like the ancient Greek citation, the Roman Empire’s festival of Hilaria is a grossly misrepresented source.

A huge gap appears in the supposed “history” and we skip ahead to 17th century England, where the fourth Sunday of Lent was set aside as “Mothering Day.” The early manner of celebrating this day involved parishioners, families, etc. walking around the outside of their church while holding hands. In other words, the celebrants were honoring their “mother” church.

This same holiday underwent a transformation of its own. The fourth Sunday of Lent, still called Mothering Day, became a day when servants were granted a day off from service to their lords. The pseudo-authorities referred to above would have us believe that this day became one where these servants returned to their homes to visit their mothers. The reality is quite different, however.

Most servants during this time in England lived in the same home (or, at least, on the estates) as their masters. And the reality is that the majority of these servants either didn’t have a family or lived so far removed from their family that one day off hardly provided the time necessary to make a round-trip journey. The day off from service was actually used for the requisite attendance at church, with the remainder of the day left to the servant’s discretion.

We now jump ahead (and across the Atlantic) to America in the years before the Civil War. Anna Maria Jarvis of West Virginia was the mother of 12 children (though eight died before reaching adulthood). Jarvis organized, at a local level, Mother’s Day Work Clubs in the years prior to the Civil War, which focused their energies on humanitarian and service efforts. When the war began, Jarvis urged these clubs to remain neutral during the war and to provide assistance in the form of food, clothing, and medical attention to both Union and Confederate soldiers. Immediately after the war she organized a Mothers’ Friendship Day that brought together local community members from both sides of the conflict. The event was a success and continued as an annual event for many years.

Julia Ward Howe, the same woman who penned the words for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” attempted to take Jarvis’ concept a step further. In 1870, with the memory of the American Civil War still fresh, Howe began a campaign for an international mother’s day to promote worldwide peace. Howe’s idea never truly materialized. Though a conference was eventually held, most of the speakers spent their time advocating women’s suffrage, rather than world peace (once again, not a Mother’s Day celebration as we know it today), and the idea faded.

We now reach the point where Mother’s Day, as we know it today, actually began and where (I’m sure) I will dismay many mothers out there. With my cynical hat firmly ensconced on my head, we pick up our story with Anna Jarvis, the daughter of Anna Maria Jarvis, in the early 20th century.

Anna Maria Jarvis died in 1905 and, two years later, her daughter Anna organized a small tribute at Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, W. Va., on the second Sunday in May (corresponding with the anniversary of her mother’s death). The success of the event led the younger Anna to launch a campaign for a national “Mothers’ Day” and the first official Mother’s Day celebrations were held the following year in Andrews Methodist Church and in the Wanamaker Store Auditorium in Philadelphia on May 10, 1908. Six years later, President Woodrow Wilson signed a Congressional Resolution setting aside Mother’s Day as a national holiday to be celebrated on the second Sunday in May.

So, in effect, folks, our present day celebration of Mother’s Day has to be considered one of the greatest scams in the history of the world. Consider the facts I just laid out in the previous paragraph. Anna Maria Jarvis dies in 1905. Granted, she is an exceptional woman, particularly given the era in which she lived, but her daughter manages to immortalize her in a way few individuals have ever been honored: the younger Anna convinces the President of the United States of America to create a nationally recognized day (now a largely internationally celebration) commemorating mothers everywhere, that just happens to coincide with the anniversary of her mother’s death. To make the whole scheme possible the day is called “Mother’s Day” but it could just as easily be called “Anna Maria Jarvis Day.”

And the real beauty of the younger Anna’s design is that she created “Mother’s Day” after her own mother was dead. Therefore, the younger Anna was never required to purchase a single gift, let alone a card. This, folks, is a scam of the highest magnitude and even if our mothers weren’t worthy of special honor on a special day (which, I believe, they are – really), I would still doff my cynical chapeau to the intellect and audacity that the younger Anna clearly possessed.