Mothers have been honored and motherhood recognized across the centuries and in many ways throughout the world. The American holiday, celebrated on the second Sunday in May, is officially a century old this year. It was initiated in 1908 by Anna Jarvis, and became an officially recognized U.S. holiday in 1914. Its founder, however, attempted to have it removed from the calendar in her later years because of the increasing commercialization associated with its observance.
Today, the celebration is alive and well. It is traditionally the day that phone traffic in the country has spiked more than 37% over normal. Flowers, gifts and personal visits to mothers are the primary ways families celebrate the holiday. Religious celebrations pay tribute to the sacrifices and dedication of the nation’s mothers and eating out is symbolic of paying tribute to a mother’s hard work throughout the year. Even some women’s causes “piggyback” on the celebration for support.
There had been numerous early attempts in this country to honor women in general and mothers in particular. Prior to the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis organized Mother’s Day Work Clubs in West Virginia with the goal of teaching women to care for their children. Following the war, she organized a Mother’s Friendship Day, promoting reconciliation between the combatants.
In 1868, Julia Ward Howe wrote a Mother’s Day Proclamation, calling for women to unite in the effort to promote world peace. Continuing efforts were led by abolitionists, suffragettes, temperance activists and proponents of peace in the years following the war. But it was not until Anna Jarvis, the daughter of the West Virginia organizer, enlisted the help of Philadelphia Shopkeeper John Wanamaker in 1908, that the efforts finally succeeded. President Wilson signed the proclamation to designate the “day in May.”
Jarvis viewed the day as a personal celebration for family members, and conceived the idea of wearing a white carnation as a special “badge” of motherhood. Even though she personally later denounced the holiday, the tradition of wearing carnations continued: White emerged as the color of “missing” mothers, while pink or red flowers are generally worn by mothers today.
Floral gifts of all kinds are among the most popular expressions of honor and respect for today’s mothers. Eating out, gifts and travel have propelled the celebration into a major consumer spending day. It is an observance that seems destined to continue.