Op-Ed: The Surprising History Behind Mother's Day


Did you know that every year in the United States an estimated 113 million cards are exchanged on Mother’s Day? Or that Mother’s Day ranks as the second most popular holiday for gift-giving, just behind Christmas?

We’ve grown so used to the annual exercise of buying flowers, cards and chocolates for Mom that we have forgotten the real meaning of Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day has its roots in a Christian tradition in Europe called “Mothering Sundays.” On the fourth Sunday of Lent, churchgoers would return to their “mother” church or cathedral in the parish of their upbringing to attend a service.

It was common for families to be reunited on this day and for children working away from home, including children working as domestic servants, to be given the day off to visit their “mother” church.

Mother’s Day was not introduced in the United States until 1908 when a woman named Anna Maria Jarvis organized a Mother’s Day celebration at Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal church in West Virginia to honor all mothers.

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Anna was inspired by her own mother, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, who founded Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in 1858 to help women learn how to better care for their children and to improve unsanitary conditions that were causing high infant mortality rates in rural West Virginia towns. Later, the elder Jarvis created “Mothers’ Friendship Day” in 1868 to help Confederate and Union soldiers and their families unite in the wake of the brutal Civil War.

After years of petitioning to have Mother’s Day added to the national calendar, Anna Jarvis’ efforts finally paid off. President Woodrow Wilson made Mother’s Day a national holiday on the second Sunday of May, in memory of the day Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis passed away in 1905.

And because Jarvis intended for Mother’s Day to honor “the best mother who ever lived, yours,” she opted for a singular possessive rather than a plural possessive. Hence today we call this observation Mother’s Day.

Several years later, however, Jarvis denounced the holiday, claiming it had become over-commercialized. She is quoted as saying, “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit.”

In Jarvis’ view, all of the flowers, cards and gifts cheapened the day and actually took the focus off honoring one’s mother.

This history is a good reminder that Mother’s Day is not ultimately about what we give our mothers. It is about truly honoring our mothers.

Yet the practice of recognizing the value and role of the women who raised us has even deeper roots in our nation’s history and the faith of our founders.

Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, said this of mothers in 1787:

“There is no fame in the world equal to this; nor is there a note in music half so delightful as the respectful language with which a grateful son or daughter perpetuates the memory of a sensible and affectionate mother.”

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Rush was reflecting on the Fifth Commandment in the Bible: “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12)

There’s a reason why God calls us to honor our parents. Mothers play an indispensable role in society. Each mother has the opportunity to love, teach, train and instill biblical values and strong character in her children. It is this far too often unrecognized service that holds together the social fabric of our great nation.

This Mother’s Day, find a way to honor your mother or another woman on the motherhood journey. A kind word, an affectionate hug or a heartfelt letter will be worth much more to our mothers than a thousand roses or boxes of chocolates.

The views expressed in this opinion article are those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website. If you are interested in contributing an Op-Ed to The Western Journal, you can learn about our submission guidelines and process here.

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Audrea Decker is communications director for My Faith Votes, a nonpartisan movement that mobilizes and equips Christians in America to vote in every election.