The backstory of Mother’s Day
In my experience, the best holidays we celebrate are the ones with really compelling backstories. You know, crowd-pleasers such as Christmas, Halloween or the Fourth of July. Why wouldn’t everybody love these holidays? Sure, Christmas has presents, Halloween has candy and the Fourth has beer and BBQ, but each also comes jam-packed with captivating myths, interesting characters, and drama that make for great bedtime story source material.
Now think about a holiday like President’s Day. OK, we get a three-day weekend out of it so technically it’s a holiday. But where’s the zing, where’s the compelling narrative that seizes your imagination? It’s actually a pretty blah holiday, a neither fish nor fowl observance of what, exactly? Have you ever brought snacks to a President’s Day “Grand Old Party,” or sent an “I Democracy” card to your wife? Of course not, because President’s Day never got “the Hallmark treatment.”
Take Valentine’s Day. Originally a minor pagan fertility festival that involved sacrificing goats and slapping each other with the dead carcasses, it became Christianized and renamed after Roman emperor Claudius murdered the original Valentine. Fun story for sure, but it wasn’t till centuries later when the greeting card industry realized that instead of people writing their own valentine notes to loved ones, there was money to be made in selling valentine cards. And that, is how Valentine’s Day became a big boy holiday.
And this Sunday we celebrate probably the second grandest of the Hallmark holidays, Mother’s Day. But before you think I’m disrespecting mom (or grandma), let me just say I’m here to free Mother’s Day from the tyranny of burnt breakfast in bed, oversized floral bouquets and the one day Dad will actually put his socks in the hamper without being nagged. That’s because the origin story of Mother’s Day is actually much more than the cuddly, flower fest Hallmark has made it into.
Our story begins with Ann Reeves Jarvis, a women’s organizer in 1850s West Virginia. Working tirelessly to fight infectious diseases and to help lower infant mortality, Ann and her Mother’s Day Work Clubs worked hard against the often-lethal problem of contaminated milk. As time went on, these Work Clubs also cared for both Union and Confederate wounded soldiers during the Civil War. This led to a more pacifist direction for the clubs, which began organizing Mother’s Friendship Day picnics and other events. A “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in 1870 called on all women to take a greater political role in helping promote peace, and the clubs expanded nationally.
Around the time of Ann’s death in 1905, her daughter Anna picked up the cause and on May 10, 1908, the first Mother’s Day observances were held in Philadelphia and Ann’s hometown of Grafton, W. Va., Anna Jarvis continued to cultivate Mother’s Day celebrations in her mother’s image: a day thanking mothers for helping promote peace, and for the work they do to help the sick and those in need. In part mostly through Anna’s efforts, more cities and states began adopting the idea of a Mother’s Day, and in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially designed the second Sunday in May to be the federally recognized holiday of Mother’s Day.
But to Anna Jarvis, official recognition started Mother’s Day down a path that reshaped the holiday in ugly ways. Anna envisioned Mother’s Day to be a quiet, intimate day of gratitude for each individual family’s matriarch, based on the idea of Mom as champion of peace, justice and comforter of the sick. But as the holiday turned into an annual commercial spectacle of flowers, chocolates and greeting cards, Anna grew enraged and threw herself (and her inherited fortune) into an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reclaim Mother’s Day from those who she believed were bastardizing its original intent. In 1948, Anna Jarvis died broke and alone, having never wanted to profit from her position as the matriarch of Mother’s Day, and offended by anyone else who would dare to try.
The National Retail Federation is projecting that Americans will spend $25 billion on Mother’s Day this year. Meanwhile, all Anna Jarvis ever wanted was for all good sons and daughters to visit their mom and say thank you.
David Rafferty is a Greenwich resident.