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Mother's Day: How the Tradition Memorializing Motherhood Came to Be

05-08-2021
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Mother's Day – that day children of all ages give cards, gifts, and unique expressions of love, or show their appreciation and gratitude to the "Moms" in their lives, no matter who they are. 

"And so, it's not just honoring your biological mother, it's honoring all the women in your lives who have mothered you in some way. I mean, that's equally as important," says historian and author of Memorializing Motherhood, Professor Katherine Lane Antolini. 

A casual glance at US history tells us the Mother's Day we celebrate today started in 1914. In a Presidential Proclamation, Woodrow Wilson called on governments and US citizens to display a flag "as a public expression of our love and reverence for the Mothers of our country" every year on the second Sunday in May. 

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To get to the true origins, however, one must look more closely – at a determined West Virginia daughter, Anna Jarvis, who wanted to answer a prayer her mother spoke at Sunday School.

"So she gave her Sunday School lesson on Mothers of the Bible. And at the very end of that, she said a prayer where she hoped that somebody, someday, will create a day in honor of mothers," Antolini explained. 

Mrs. Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis was a wife and mother who gave birth to 13 children. Only four survived childhood – an all too common reality in the 1800s. Bold and outspoken, she stepped into the public arena – the sphere of men – rallying women to bring social reform. 

Through what she called "Mother's Work Clubs," Ann Marie brought together women in her community to educate themselves about the main cause of infant mortality – a disease caused by poor sanitation – and get the word out to others. 

Later, with the help of her brother, Dr. James Reeves, her cause became a public health movement that is credited with saving thousands of infants' lives.

After the Civil War, Ann Marie rallied mothers again to help reconcile Union and Confederate veterans through "Mother's Friendship Days." 

"Get your sons, no matter what side they were on, get your sons to come to the courthouse." Ann Marie wrote. "This is a time that we need to, again, put the bitterness of the war behind us. We need to heal. We need to come together."

It was that example of how a mother's strength, courage, self-sacrifice, and love can bring healing and unity that compelled her daughter Anna to push for local, state, and federal governments to set aside a sacred day to honor all Mothers around the country.

With the help of friends writing countless letters to government officials, including Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and humorist Mark Twain – the first Mother's Day Service was celebrated at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, on May 10, 1908, in Anna's hometown, Grafton, West Virginia. On the front of the order of service was a portrait of Anna's beloved mother. 

"I always think one of the loveliest statements that Anna Jarvis said was 'I created Mother's Day, not because I love my mother, it's because she loves me,'" said Antolini.

By the time of President Wilson's 1914 proclamation to make it a national holiday, Mother's Day was already being observed in all 48 states, and it went on to be celebrated all over the world in some form. 

"She would love the idea that Mother's Day is still a big holiday. It was her day and she copyrighted it," Antolini added.

With all the cards sent and gifts given this year, Anna's story and legacy leave us a reminder of how important our mothers are to us.

"Everybody loves the little children who celebrate Mother's Day," Antolini said. "But I think as adults, we really need to think about the day and what it means to our mothers. It may be more important especially if you still have your mother with you. It's even more important for us to recognize how important our mothers are to us and tell them that before you regret not having done it."

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