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The Origins of Mother's Day Trace Back to a Mother’s Prayer

Grafton, West Virginia 

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

Historian and Author of "Memorializing Motherhood," Professor Katherine Lane Antolini: "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."

A casual glance at U.S. history tells us the Mother's Day we celebrate today started in 1914. In a Presidential Proclamation, Woodrow Wilson called on governments and U.S 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. 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.

Professor Antolini: "So she (Anna's mother) 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 honors of Mothers."

Mrs. Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis (Anna's mother) was a wife and mother who gave birth to thirteen 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. 

Professor Antolini says Ann Marie believed: "We have to do something  – as mothers, what can we do to keep our children alive!"

Through what she called "Mother's Work Clubs," Ann Marie brought together women in her community to educate themselves about the leading cause of infant mortality – disease caused by poor sanitation – and get the word out to others. Later, with the help of her brother, Doctor James Reeves, her cause became a public health movement that is credited with saving thousands of infant's lives. Then, after the Civil War, Ann Marie rallied mother's again to help reconcile Union and Confederate veterans through "Mother's Friendship Days."

Professor Antolini reports Ann Marie assembled mothers: 'Get your sons, no matter what side they were on, get your sons to come to the courthouse.' And she supposedly gives this very touching speech of, '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 honors all Mothers around the country.

Professor Antolin explains: "And so, it was that notion of wanting to pay homage to the love that her mother bestowed on her and that all mothers their children." 

With the help of friends writing countless letters to local, state, and federal officials, including Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Taft, and humorist Mark Twain --- The first Mother's Day Service was celebrated here, then Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, on May 10th, 1908, in Anna's hometown, Grafton, West Virginia. On the front of the order of service, a portrait of Anna's beloved mother.

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

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. 

Professor Antolin says: "She (Anna Jarvis) would love the idea that Mother's Day is still a big holiday -- it was her day, and she copyrighted it."

With all the cards sent and gifts given this year, Anna's story and legacy leave us a reminder.

Professor Antolin reflects: "Everybody loves the little children who celebrate Mother's Day, 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 we regret not having done it."

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