The modern day we celebrate as Mothers’ Day has its origins in three different celebrations.
Since the Middle Ages, in much of Europe, the fourth Sunday of Lent – three Sundays before Easter - was observed as Mothering Sunday. On this day, children who were working away from home were given the weekend off to visit their mothers. Frequently, the working children gave their mothers a rich fruit cake, known in England as a Simnel cake, as a pre-Easter present. It was often the one day of the year when all members of a family were together at one time. Families made a point of worshipping together. In many churches, bunches of flowers were given to each mother present. In many areas, these traditions lapsed over the centuries, but there were many other areas where the traditions were kept up.
The celebration of this day as Mothers’ Day developed from two proposed celebrations in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1872, Julia Ward Howe, the author of the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, suggested the establishment of a “Mothers’ Day for Peace” in June every year. Following the carnage of the American Civil War and of the Franco-Prussian War, she called on the mothers of all nations to unite to promote peace and to oppose warfare, in a document she called “An appeal to womanhood throughout the world”. She wrote:
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. ... The women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.
Sadly, nothing much came of Julia Ward Howe’s proposal other than a few occasional local celebrations.
In the early twentieth century, a woman named Anna Jarvis established a day that (at least in its early years) had similarities both with the European Mothering Sunday and with Julia Ward Howe’s “Mothers’ Day for Peace”.
Anna Jarvis’s mother, Ann, was an active community worker in rural West Virginia. During the years following the American Civil War, living in an area where local sentiments were divided between the two sides, Ann Jarvis set up a number of community groups where women could meet with other women, regardless of their families’ side in the conflict. These groups promoted reconciliation in their communities following the tragic war.
Following Ann’s death in 1906, her daughter Anna began a campaign to establish a Mothers’ Day celebration. This celebration involved both the sense of honouring individual mothers (as in the European Mothering Sunday) and with the humanitarian sense found in Julia Ward Howe’s “Mothers’ Day for Peace” and in her own mother's community work in West Virginia. The first public celebration of Mothers’ Day was on the 10th of May, 1908, at the Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia.
Mothers’ Day was officially recognised in the United States in 1914, and in many other countries since then.
Interestingly, Anna Jarvis’s campaign in the United States inspired a English woman named Constance Smith to begin a campaign to revive the celebration of Mothering Sunday in the UK at about the same time, and with similar motivations as Anna Jarvis, but continuing with the traditional European date of the 4th Sunday of Lent.
In her later years, Anna Jarvis was profoundly saddened by the commercialism that surrounded Mothers’ Day and, by the time of her death in 1948, she expressed her deep regrets that she had been involved in establishing an event that had been so badly commercialised. (It’s just as well that she hasn’t seen how badly commercialised the day has become in the years since her death.)
As we celebrate Mothers’ Day today, even as we lament the commercialism that has affected this celebration (like so many other celebrations), there are many signs of hope in the history of this day. Not the least of the signs of hope is in the fact that such individuals as Julia Ward Howe, Ann Jarvis, Anna Jarvis, and Constance Smith - each of whom were individuals of active Christian faith and commitment - how each of these women were able to take hope-filled ideas and work to make their ideas a reality.