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The Surprising History of Mother’s Day You Never Knew

A day of thanks and appreciation for the most important and influential women in our lives seems like a no-brainer. But the road to the warm and fuzzy holiday we know today actually involved a lot of hard work, disagreement, and heartache.

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Family hugVioletaStoimenova/Getty Images

The origin of Mother’s Day

You might think that this holiday is all about Mother’s Day gifts and Mother’s Day flowers, but there is actually more of a story behind it than you probably realized. This history of Mother’s Day involves the ancient Greeks and Romans, a fight from a powerful woman, Anna Jarvis, and some effort from feminist Julia Ward Howe. After you’re done reading up on the origin of Mother’s Day, make sure you shower your mother or the mother figure in your life with lots of love on May 9. Here are some Mother’s Day quotes and Mother’s Day poems that she’ll be sure to appreciate.

Cult of Cybele by Mercury, the sacred basket of mysteries, engravings of Greek Vases in the Collection of the Comte de Lamberg, 1813-24, volume two, plate 2 (Alexandre Laborde)Gianni Dagli Orti/Shutterstock

The early incarnations of the holiday

Like many modern holidays, Mother’s Day didn’t quite pop up out of the blue. The ancient Greeks and Romans dedicated festivals to the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele, respectively. And 16th century England gave rise to Mothering Sunday, during which children would make a pilgrimage to their family church (aka their “mother” church) on the fourth Sunday of Lent. That trip also provided a good excuse for a family reunion—and a day off for domestic-servant workers, usually daughters, so they could see their mothers. Mothering Sunday, which always comes before May Day, is still celebrated in the U.K., though it is now generally a secular holiday.

RELATED: 36 Free Printable Mother’s Day Cards She’ll Love

Founder of Mother's Day Anna M. JarvisBettmann/Getty Images

The “mother” of Mother’s Day

Historical precedents aside, today’s version of Mother’s Day in the United States can be attributed to the tireless efforts of Anna Jarvis, who wasn’t actually a mother herself. She organized the first observance in 1908 to honor her own mother, who had died three years earlier. Katharine Antolini, author of Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day, explains, “It wasn’t to celebrate all mothers. It was to celebrate the best mother you’ve ever known—your mother.” In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson named Mother’s Day an official holiday.

Family Awaiting For New MemberPekic/Getty Images

Respect for mothers ran in the family

Interestingly, as Time magazine reports, Jarvis’s mother, Ann, had wanted to start a holiday for mothers in the mid-19th century, but her idea was strikingly different: She envisioned a community-service day for mothers to help other mothers in need. This was partly inspired by Ann’s own tragedies: She gave birth to 13 children, but only four of them lived to adulthood. At the time, typhoid fever was ripping through her Appalachian community, and she and her doctor brother organized informational sessions called Mothers’ Day Work Clubs. Their purpose was to educate women about proper hygiene and give their children a better chance of staying healthy.

RELATED: Motherhood quotes to share with Mom

Julia Ward Howe author of the 'Battle Hymn Republic', ca. 1906.Everett Historical/Shutterstock

Moms on a mission for peace

The origin of Mother’s Day also has an anti-war history. In the 1870s, Julia Ward Howe, the abolitionist, feminist, and suffragette who wrote the lyrics for “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” penned the “Mother’s Day Proclamation.” It called for mothers to band together to promote peace. Later, she also unsuccessfully pushed for the creation of a holiday called Mother’s Peace Day. Around the same time, Ann Jarvis organized Mothers’ Friendship Day, during which mothers met with former soldiers from the Union and the Confederacy to encourage reconciliation and find a way for the country to move forward.

Mother's Day Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images

What happened to Anna Jarvis?

In a bitterly ironic twist, a holiday that’s celebrated with hugs and flowers became one of anger, obsession, and litigation for Anna Jarvis. She felt that the holiday was being hijacked by the greeting card, candy, and flower industries, corrupting her original vision of Mother’s Day. She organized boycotts and protests, spoke out against people including Eleanor Roosevelt for using the day to raise money for charity, and was involved in 33 lawsuits by 1944. “To have Mother’s Day the burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift day that Christmas and other special days have become, is not our pleasure,” she wrote in the 1920s. “If the American people are not willing to protect Mother’s Day from the hordes of money schemers that would overwhelm it with their schemes, then we shall cease having a Mother’s Day—and we know how.” Her tenacity never waned, and she dedicated her entire life and savings to fighting against the commercialization of the holiday. She spent some of her final years in a sanitarium, and she died, penniless, in 1948.

King Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is seen at her home in Atlanta, GaAP/REX/Shutterstock

Mothers fighting for a cause once again

Mothers are the ultimate advocates for their children—and historically, they have been powerful forces of change. Following in the footsteps of Ann Jarvis, some women in the second half of the 20th century used Mother’s Day to draw attention to important causes. For example, History.com reports that Coretta Scott King organized a march in 1968 to fight for underprivileged women and children, and in the 1970s, women’s groups used the day to discuss equal rights and access to childcare.

Goddess DurgaAmith Nag Photography/Getty Images

Celebrations around the world

Each country has its own Mother’s Day origins and celebratory twists. Mexican moms, for example, are feted all day with food, flowers, and music. That music includes a serenade by mariachi singers with the song “Las Mañanitas.” In Ethiopia, during the fall Antrosht festival that honors mothers, families make a traditional meat hash; daughters bring vegetables and cheese for it, while sons bring meat. In India, Hindus have long celebrated a ten-day festival in October honoring their Divine Mother, Durga, and a westernized version of Mother’s Day is officially observed on May 10. And in France—where, in 1920, mothers of big families were given medals for helping to rebuild the population after World War I—the traditional gift is a flower-shaped cake.

RELATED: Mother’s Day traditions around the world

Black mother and daughter holding bouquet of flowersAriel Skelley/Getty Images

Just how lucrative is Mother’s Day?

The history of Mother’s Day also involves a lot of shopping. According to the National Retail Federation, shoppers spent over $26 billion in 2020. (Yes, you read that right—over $26 billion.) The most popular purchases? Greeting cards and flowers, of course, followed by gift certificates, a special outing, and clothing and accessories.

RELATED: The best Mother’s Day flowers and plants for Mom

white Carnations for mothers dayma-no/Getty Images

Pass on those overpriced roses…

While the flower industry took the concept of Mother’s Day and ran with it (right to the bank), the original flower of Mother’s Day was the unassuming white carnation. It was Ann Jarvis’s favorite, and as Anna said in a 1927 interview, “The carnation does not drop its petals, but hugs them to its heart as it dies, and so, too, mothers hug their children to their hearts, their mother love never dying.”

RELATED: 25 Last-Minute Mother’s Day Gifts Any Mom Will Love

Adult woman and senior mother talking on front porchMoMo Productions/Getty Images

Facts about our “mother” tongue

There are 48 words in the English language that contain the word “mother,” and you can see the complete list here. Some are lovely words, like “motherhood” and “motherly.” Some are, shall we say, less lovely, like “chemotherapy” and “smothering.” And some can’t even be printed here. For extra credit, you can tell your mom that the word “mother lode,” which means an abundant source or supply, has its origins in 19th century mining camps but is, in fact, an homage to the abundant source of love that has been ascribed to mothers.

RELATED: 50 DIY Mother’s Day Gifts That Show You Really Care

Female professional with three sons in home officeSimon Ritzmann/Getty Images

No matter what, Moms really, really deserve a celebration day

Mother’s Day is an acknowledgment of all moms do. Consider that by a baby’s second birthday, its diaper will have been changed approximately 7,300 times. Each diaper change by Mom takes approximately two minutes (whereas each diaper change by Dad takes about one and a half minutes). Preschool-age children demand Mom’s attention approximately 210 times per day (or every four minutes). Moms of preschool-age children spend approximately three hours per day on childcare and approximately two hours on household chores. Nevertheless, 72% of moms with children over one year old work, and 55% of moms with a child under one year old work. For moms who work, the workday plus childcare and chore time equals, on average, a 13-hour day.

RELATED: Funny Mom memes for Mother’s Day

Sources:

  • How Stuff Works: “Who came up with Mother’s Day and why?”
  • National Geographic: “Mother’s Day Turns 100: Its Surprisingly Dark History”
  • Time: “The Surprisingly Sad Origins of Mother’s Day”
  • History: “Mother’s Day 2021”
  • Time: “Here’s How 9 Other Countries Celebrate Mother’s Day”
  • Scholastic: “Mother’s Day Traditions Around the World”
  • National Geographic: “7 Things You Don’t Know About Mother’s Day’s Dark History”
  • NRF: “Mother’s Day Data Center”

Dawn Yanek
Dawn Yanek is a professional writer, editor, and on-air personality with a strong pop-culture and marketing background who has appeared on more than 2,500 live and taped TV segments. She lives in New York with her husband and their two very sweet, insanely energetic kids.

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