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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.

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. Don’t miss the 16 best pieces of timeless advice from moms.

close up view of mother holding daughter's handsLightField Studios/Shutterstock

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. Looking for the perfect way to tell your own mom that she’s amazing? Memorize these 29 quotes about motherhood.

Group of business women using tablet outdoors.bbernard/Shutterstock

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.

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

Moms on a mission for peace

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.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT Eleanor Roosevelt sits at the farewell dinner honoring Abba Eban, retiring Iraeli Ambassador to the United States, in New York in 1959AP/REX/Shutterstock

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. 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, reports 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. These 11 quotes about moms will make you want to call yours ASAP.

Beautiful decorative cake with flowerstofumax/Shutterstock

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. 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. For celebrations closer to home, check out these 8 mother-daughter bonding activities.

Colorful bouquet with meadow flowers and card / colorful meadow flowers / flowersCora Mueller/Shutterstock

Just how lucrative is Mother’s Day?

According to the National Retail Federation, American shoppers were expected to spend an average of $180 in 2018, for a grand total of $23.1 billion nationwide. (Yes, you read that right—$23.1 billion.) The most popular purchases? Greeting cards and flowers, of course, followed by gift certificates, clothing, and jewelry. Here are more thoughtful gift ideas for mom.

White carnation on black backgroundGrzegorz Mordecki/Shutterstock

Pass on those over-priced 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.” If you’re surprised by the history behind the national holiday, take a look at the 19 facts you never knew about Mother’s Day.

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.