The Beauty of Mother’s Day History and Traditions

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Posted on 11/09/2021

It’s the little things Mom does each day that help us bloom and grow into the people we are.

Did you know that more phone calls are placed on Mother’s Day than on any other day of the year? Neither did I. I was actually surprised, thinking that Christmas, Thanksgiving, or some other family-oriented holiday would take the lead. But if you stop and think about it, it’s appropriate that that day should trigger more communication than any other occasion. After all, for most of us, who is the most important person in our lives from the moment we enter the world and even into adulthood? Who teaches us right from wrong, the value of hard work and honestly, the incredible power of love? Who’s there to show pride in our accomplishments but at the same time keep our feet on the ground? Who feeds our bodies with home-cooked meals, our souls with inspiration, and our imaginations with magic? Who tucks us in at night, kisses our scraped knees, makes us chicken soup when we’re sick, suffers our teenage stupidities, and listens while we cry out our first broken heart? Who sacrifices time, privacy, and money (and a bit of sanity) throughout our lives just so we can grow, learn, and hopefully be happy? That’s right . . . it’s Mom. And it doesn’t matter if you call her Mom, Mommy, Mum, Mama, Madre, Mater, or any of the dozens or possibly hundreds of other words that mean the same thing, it’s the feeling behind that word that makes it significant and understood by almost every one of us.

Of course, the idea of taking the time to honor our mothers is not a new concept. The ancient Greeks and Romans used to hold festivals in honor of Rhea and Cybele, both mother goddesses. And early Christians held a festival known as “Mothering Sunday,” which fell on the fourth Sunday in Lent. A major tradition in the United Kingdom and throughout parts of Europe at the time, “Mothering Sunday” was a day for the faithful to return to their “mother church,” or the main church near their home, where they would participate in a special service. Eventually, this tradition changed into a more secular custom, becoming a time for children to honor their mothers by giving them flowers and other tokens of love and appreciation. But even this newer tradition began to fall out of popularity until, in the 1930s and 1940s, it began to get blended with the American Mother’s Day.

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Although Mother’s Day is celebrated at different times and in different ways around the world today, (scroll down to see how Mother’s Day is celebrated across the globe—you may get some good ideas for yourself!) the modern American Mother’s Day takes place on the second Sunday in May. And its roots date back to the 19th century in the years before the Civil War, specifically 1861-1865.

A lady named Ann Reeves Jarvis, from West Virginia, helped start “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” that were designed to teach women how to care for their children. The clubs would eventually become a unifying force in a part of the country still very divided over the Civil War, and in 1868, Jarvis created “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” where mothers got together with former Union and Confederate soldiers in order to promote reconciliation.

Julia Ward Howe, abolitionist and suffragette, also had a part in the development of the modern Mother’s Day. In 1870, she penned the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” which encouraged mothers to unite in order to promote world peace. She campaigned for a “Mother’s Peace Day” which she hoped to celebrate on June 2. There were others involved in various types of activism and promotion over the years as well, but the official Mother’s Day holiday we know and love now started in the 1900s due to the efforts of Ann Reeves Jarvis’ daughter, Anna Jarvis. Although she herself never married or had children, after her mother’s death in 1905, Anna wanted to honor her mother’s memory and all the sacrifices she and other mothers made for their children. With financial backing from a department store owner in Philadelphia, John Wanamaker, she organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration in May 1908, which took place at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. That same day, thousands attended another Mother’s Day event at one of John Wanamaker’s Philadelphia stores.

Due to the success of that first Mother’s Day celebration, Anna Jarvis started a huge letter-writing campaign to newspapers and prominent politicians, arguing that American holidays were biased toward male achievements, and urging them to adopt a special day honoring motherhood. By 1912, Mother’s Day was being celebrated annually in many states, towns, and churches, and Jarvis’ persistence paid off, for in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure that officially established the second Sunday in every May as Mother’s Day!

Although Jarvis herself eventually came to believe that Mother’s Day had become too commercialized, it continues to be a beloved holiday during which those all-important women in our lives are honored, respected, and hopefully a bit pampered. And although we should show and tell them how important they are all year round, it’s nice to have a specific day set aside where moms can take a break, put up their feet, perhaps eat some good food they themselves did not cook, enjoy being surrounded by gorgeous blooms, and maybe indulge in a bit of chocolate. After all, without our moms, none of us would be here!

How are people celebrating Mother’s Day around the world?

Australia: In Australia, as in the United States, it is traditional to wear a carnation on Mother’s Day. A colored one indicates that the individual’s mother is still living, while a white carnation is worn to honor a mother who has passed away. Children also honor and pamper their grandmothers and other women in their lives who have loved and cared for them like a mother. To show respect and acknowledge all the hardships their mothers have endured while raising them, children often treat their moms to breakfast in bed and give them gifts and cakes.

Flowers are always a popular Mother’s Day gift. Roses are especially well-received.

New Zealand: New Zealanders celebrate Mother’s Day in much the same way as in Australia and the US, but there tends to be a bit more euphoria over the day than we perhaps see here in the United States. Along with flowers and cakes, mothers are treated to dinners and picnics, breakfast in bed, a day’s rest from cooking and household chores, and treatments at spas. Sounds pretty nice, actually!

Thailand: August 12th is the celebrated birthday of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, and since the Queen is regarded as mother to the Thai people, this date is also designated as Mother’s Day. It started in 1976 and continues to this day. The Queen has earned her people’s devotion through her concern for their welfare and her benevolence towards the nation’s poor and needy. Preparations begin a few weeks before the big day, with people all across the country raising national flags and decorating their houses with portraits of the Queen. Bangkok, the area around the Grand Palace, and other well-known places are adorned with colorful lights, and a fireworks display adds to the festive atmosphere. Early in the morning on August 12th, government officials, royal army, teachers, and students gather around the high clock tower where they form a procession and walk to the palace. Along the way, bands play popular pieces of music, and once the procession arrives, flowers are presented to the Queen’s representative. This is followed by the song “Mother of Kingdom,” which praises both the King and Queen. In the evening, government officials light candles at the Queen’s garden, paying her respect and a wish for long life. The Thai people also use this day to thank their own mothers for their unconditional love. In the morning, alms are given to the monks. Then the children kneel down before their mothers, showing their love and gratitude for everything she has done. She is presented with white jasmine blooms or garlands (jasmine is a symbol of maternal love, the white color standing for the purity of that love, which will never change), and in return, the mother showers her children with blessings.

Ethiopia: This country doesn’t devote just one day to Mother’s Day, but rather, they have a three-day festival in mid-fall! This celebration honors mothers, but it also comes at the end of the rainy season, making it even more special. Once the weather clears, they make their way home to enjoy a three-day feast called Antrosht. The children bring the ingredients for a traditional hash (the girls bring butter, cheese, vegetables, and spices; the boys bring a bull or lamb). The mother prepares the hash and serves it to her family. Once the meal is over, the real celebration begins. The women anoint their faces and chests with butter, and they dance while the men sing songs that honor family and heroes. Want to add a little Ethiopian spirit to your Mother’s Day this year? Try this recipe:

Mother’s Day has been adopted in a number of other places around the world as well, perhaps most remarkably in India, simply because they already have so many festivals throughout the year, it is quite an accomplishment for a foreign holiday to take hold the way it has. But wherever you are, make sure this Mother’s Day is a special one!