Mother’s Day: It’s not supposed to be a Hallmark holiday

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This Sunday we celebrate Mother’s Day and, like many holidays, it took the work of one tireless promoter to bring Mother’s Day to life. Her name was Anna Jarvis and she was a devoted daughter, committed to finding a way to pay tribute to not only her own mother (who gave birth to 11 children), but all mothers, worldwide.

The why of it all

The idea of setting aside one day a year to honor the women of the world who gave birth to and raised us was actually her mother’s dream and it instilled in young
Anna a resolve she couldn’t shake. Jarvis frequently recalled the day her mother, a Sunday school teacher and peace activist, gave a lesson on “Mothers in the Bible,” and concluded the day’s teachings with the following prayer:

“I hope 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.” 

Jarvis’ never forgot these words and recited them at her mother’s funeral in 1905, adding her vow that “by the grace of God,” her mother’s dream of a day to honor the contributions of all mothers – living and dead – would be realized.

A tireless campaign

Jarvis and her supporters started a letter-writing campaign to their city leaders and she used the podium in her church and other civic arenas to speak on the topic.

Her efforts were initially met with disinterest but she was not dissuaded. Finally, after enlisting the help of a Philadelphia philanthropist, John Wanamaker, Jarvis was able to breathe new life into the movement.

Two years later, her home state of West Virginia became the first to recognize a day set aside to honor mothers. Four years later, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation creating Mother’s Day, a national holiday, to be celebrated every year on the second Sunday in May.

Retail takes over

Jarvis’ mother, a woman devoted to the care of soldiers during the Civil War, was so fond of carnations that Jarvis chose the flower as the Mother’s Day symbol. White carnations were worn by those whose mother’s had passed away and red or pink carnations were worn to honor mothers who were still living.

The subsequent boost in sales led florists to take Jarvis’ ideas and run with them.
Soon after, other retailers jumped on the bandwagon and Mother’s Day became a heavily promoted holiday by retailers, urging the purchase of cards and chocolates as well as flowers.

Jarvis steps out

Anna Jarvis was appalled by the monster she created, soon becoming so irritated over the corruption of her mother’s idea and the exploitation of the sentiment that she – again, tirelessly – worked to have it rescinded. She led boycotts, threatened lawsuits and performed acts of civil disobedience, to no avail.

In 1925, Jarvis was arrested for disturbing the peace after a protest over the commercialization of Mother’s Day. Nevertheless, the never-married, never-a-mother Jarvis spent the rest of her life devoted to the repeal of Mother’s Day. To this day, Mother’s Day, as well as most of our other beloved holidays, remain hijacked by retail.