Mother’s Day Origin Story

Family History
5 May 2023
by Ancestry® Team

Every second Sunday in May, people around the United States celebrate mothers with gifts and flowers, but most people do so without any knowledge of the Mother’s Day origin story. 

The truth is that even before the holiday was given an official date, cultures around the world honored mothers in numerous ways, from pagan celebrations in Greece and Rome to modern reverence within contemporary churches. Learn about the history of Mother’s and discover the stories of mothers and grandmothers in your own family tree with the resources available at Ancestry®.

Ann Reeves Jarvis, d. 1905.
Ann Reeves Jarvis, 1905, Library of Congress

Mother’s Day History

Mother’s Day originally focused on community service—and had its roots in the anti-war and feminist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Actually, the modern holiday was first celebrated in 1907, when Anna Jarvis held the first Mother’s Day service of worship at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. 

Her initiative to make Mother’s Day an official holiday in the United States began in 1905, when her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, died.

Ann Reeves Jarvis had been a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers from the American Civil War, and created Mother’s Day Work Clubs to expose public health issues. 

She had been urging for the creation of a “Mother’s Day For Peace” so that mothers could ask that men were no longer killed in wars.

Why Is Mother’s Day Celebrated?

Anna Jarvis was highly influenced by her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis. 

Ann was a community leader who formed mothers’ work groups to fight for clean water and sanitation before the Civil War. She also put lots of energy in healing rifts between Confederate and Union neighbors after the war ended and even cared for wounded soldiers. 

This exposure to poverty and the horrors of war naturally informed her activism and her desire to educate mothers to better help their children survive and thrive.

What’s the Origin of Mother’s Day?

The modern holiday campaign started after Ann Reeves Jarvis died in 1905, since it marked the beginning of her daughter’s quest to bring her mother’s dream to life. 

After seeing the success of the first Mother’s Day celebration that was held in 1907 in Grafton, WV, at the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, Anna began writing to influential people with the aim of making Mother’s Day an official holiday. 

Although Congress did not approve immediately, every state was celebrating the holiday by 1911. 

Finally, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made Mother’s Day an official holiday with the stroke of his pen and declared the celebration of the holiday would take place on the second Sunday of every May.

What’s the Controversy Around Mother’s Day?

The commercial use of the holiday infuriated Anna Jarvis. Although she pushed hard for Mother’s Day to become an official holiday, she came to resent it and fought to undo all her hard work due to how businesses took all the meaning away from the celebration. 

For example, Hallmark Cards began selling Mother’s Day cards in the early 1920s, which Jarvis felt detracted from the original sentiment of the holiday. 

Businesses were making profits from her original idea, which included handwritten letters and handmade Mother’s Day gifts.

Anna Jarvis started organizing boycotts and threatening lawsuits. Her quest against commercialization became so aggressive that she even got arrested in 1923 for disturbing the peace when she decided to interrupt a meeting of American War Mothers, raising money for their cause on Mother’s Day by selling carnations.

By the time of her death in 1948, Anna Jarvis had disowned the holiday. Her efforts lobbying the government to see it removed from the American calendar, were completely unsuccessful.

Who else Contributed in the History of Mother’s Day?

The history of Mother’s Day celebration has another influencer within its origin story — Julia Ward Howe also had an idea for Mother’s Day. 

In 1873, the poet and author Howe proposed a Mother’s Day of Peace as a way to heal the wounds of the American Civil War and European Franco-Prussian War. 

Her conception of the holiday suggested women gather together annually in their homes, churches, and social spaces to listen, speak, sing, and pray to promote a more peaceful world. 

As the focus shifted from famous mothers and mothers in general to individual mothers, Howe’s ideas fell by the wayside in favor of Anna Jarvis’s version of Mother’s Day.

Julia Ward Howe
Julia Ward Howe, 1897

Do Other Countries Celebrate Mother’s Day?

Mother’s Day is celebrated worldwide and traditions vary depending on the country. 

Indeed, this celebration spans millennia, with ancient cultures leading the way with pagan celebrations that honored Rhea in Greece and Cybele in Rome. 

England took up these celebrations in the 17th century with the advent of Mothering Sunday, which occurred on Lent’s fourth Sunday. 

The Crown proclaimed the day was for all mothers in the country, from servant to nobility, and declared that everyone should return home to visit their moms. This day eventually merged with a celebration of the Mother Church, making the holiday more religious in nature than that celebrated later in America.

In Thailand, Mother’s Day is celebrated in August on the birthday of the current queen, Sirikit. In Ethiopia, families gather in the fall to   feast as part of Antrosht, a celebration honoring motherhood.

In the United States, Mother’s Day continues to be celebrated and it has become one of the biggest holidays not only for consumer spending, but also as a date for launching political or feminist causes. 

In 1968 Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King Jr., used Mother’s Day to host a march in support of underprivileged women and children.Also in the 1970s women’s groups used the holiday as a time to ask for  equal rights and access to childcare.

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