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The history of Mother’s Day

BY Gill Hasson

16th Mar 2023 Life

The history of Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day has a long and interesting history and is celebrated in various forms all over the world 

Celebrations of mothers and motherhood can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman times. In Greece, festivals were held in honour of the Goddess Rhea, who was mother of the Olympian Gods Hestia, Demeter, Hera and Zeus. 

Ancient origins 

Goddess Cybele statue
Cybele is Phrygia's only known goddess, and an ancient connection with Mother's Day. Photo credit: Nevit Dilmen

The Goddess Cybele, considered the Great Mother of the Gods—associated with motherhood, nature, fertility, and agriculture—was originally worshiped in the kingdom of Phrygia (now an area of Turkey) but her cult also spread to Greece and Rome. 

In more recent times, Mother’s Day—a celebration honouring mothers and motherhood—is celebrated on different days and in different ways in many parts of the world. 

Mother’s Day in the UK 

Mother's Day gifts and flowers
Mother's Day is now celebrated with gifts and flowers in the UK

In the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, Mother’s Day falls on the fourth Sunday in Lent. In the UK it began during the Middle Ages as an occasion when people who had moved away from where they grew up, to return home, meet up with their families and visit their “mother church”—the main church in their community—for a special service.  

"In the UK it began during the Middle Ages as an occasion when people who had moved away from where they grew up"

Over time, the Mothering Sunday tradition shifted into a more secular, non-religious tradition, with both young and grown-up children presenting their mothers with flowers, gifts, and other tokens of affection

Around the world 

While versions of Mother’s Day are celebrated worldwide, the origins vary from country to country.  

Mother’s Day in France 

Mother’s Day in France has its origins in the Napoleonic era. In 1806, Napoleon announced a special day to recognise mothers of large families.  
This celebration was revived in 1920, when the government began awarding medals to mothers of large families to acknowledge their help in rebuilding the population, after so many lives were lost in the First World War. After the Second World War, the government declared the last Sunday in May to be La Fête des Mères

Mother’s Day in Japan

It is believed that Mother’s Day—Haha no Hi—began in Japan when it was introduced by Christian missionaries in 1913, with March 6 being chosen as the official date for Mother’s Day as it was the birthday of Empress Kojun, mother of the then Emperor Akihito.  

"During the Second World War, the Japanese were prohibited from celebrating western customs and Mother’s Day was brought to an abrupt halt"

The celebration later became fully established alongside the organisation of the Imperial Women’s Union in 1931. However, during the Second World War, the Japanese were prohibited from celebrating western customs and Mother’s Day was brought to an abrupt halt. With the end of the war, in 1949 Mother’s Day returned to the Japanese calendar and the date was changed to the second Sunday of May. 

Mother’s Day and International Women’s Day

In many countries, Mother's Day is celebrated alongside Women's Day

In 1977 the United Nations declared March 8 as International Women's Day, a day each year to celebrate, recognise and remember women and their accomplishments. March 8 is also Mother's Day in a number of countries. Russia, Bulgaria, Afghanistan and Albania, for example, celebrate International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day together. 

Mother’s Day in the United States

Perhaps one of the most interesting histories of Mother’s Day comes from the US, where the idea for a specific day to honour mothers came about as result of an initiative by a woman named Anna Jarvis
Anna’s mother, Ann, as well as being a peace activist, devoted her life to supporting and advancing the causes of women. The story goes that after one particular Sunday school lesson in 1876, Anna’s mother ended the lesson with a prayer that “someone, sometime, will found a memorial Mother’s Day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.” 
 Anna Jarvis
Anna Jarvis eventually gave up her full-time job to pursue her wish for a national day dedicated to mothers

After her mother died in 1905, Anna conceived of a “Mother’s Day Movement” as a way of honouring her mother’s wish. 
She began a letter-writing campaign to anyone and everyone she thought might advance her cause. She eventually gave up her job as the first female literary and advertising editor at a life insurance company to write full-time to politicians, newspapers, members of the clergy, authors and prominent business leaders, pointing out that American holidays were biased toward male achievements. Anna’s persistence paid off when, with financial backing from prominent Philadelphian businessman John Wanamaker, she organised the first official Mother’s Day celebration in 1908 at the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where she had lived as a child.  
That same day also saw thousands of people attend a Mother’s Day event at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia where Anna addressed a crowd of 5,000, with another 10,000 trying to gain entry into the auditorium.  

"Anna soon became disillusioned with the extent to which others to sought profit from the commercialisation of the day"

Unable to attend the service in Grafton because of her speaking engagement at Wannamaker’s, Anna sent 500 white carnations, her mother's favourite flower, to the church. She asked that attendees pin them on as a symbol of the purity of a mother’s love. Encouraged by her success, Anna continued to press for an officially observed Mother’s Day and in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May a federally recognised Mother’s Day holiday. 
Sadly, Anna soon became disillusioned with the extent to which others to sought profit from the commercialisation of the day—which, for her, was a day of personal celebration between mothers and families and attendance at church. 
 Mother's Day Historical Marker
Whilst Anna Jarvis became disillusioned with the celebration of Mother's Day, she is still credited with its inception

By 1920, Anna was speaking out in the strongest of terms against Mother’s Day profiteers. She lobbied the government to see it removed from the American calendar and filed countless lawsuits against groups and organisations that used the name “Mother’s Day”, eventually exhausting most of her personal wealth in legal fees. By the time of her death in 1948, Jarvis had disowned the holiday altogether. 
Despite her efforts, Mother’s Day continues to be celebrated in the US on the second Sunday of May each year. 


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