History of Mother’s Day: Holiday Traditions & Culture

History of Mother’s Day: Holiday Traditions & Culture
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Think Mother’s Day evolved from some ancient cult or the worship of the mother goddess, Cybele, the Greek fertility symbol of mother earth? Not quite. Mother’s Day is an American invention and its creator, Anna M. Jarvis, was a West Virginia schoolteacher who had a lifelong devotion to her own mother, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis. Anna’s mother was a remarkable women who gave aid in any way she could to soldiers in the Civil War, regardless of what side they were on—both Union and Confederate soldiers—and even nursing them through typhoid fever and measles. Her mother also founded an organization: Mothers’ Day Work Clubs, which, in five different cities worked to combat poor sanitary and health conditions.

When Anna Jarvis’ mother died in 1905, Jarvis undertook a letter-writing campaign, asking American ministers, businessman and congressmen to support the idea of a national day set aside to honor mothers. She succeeded in 1914. The International Mother’s Day Shrine was established to commemorate her accomplishment and President Woodrow Wilson established the second Sunday in May as the date.

Later in the 1920s, Anna had problems with the way Mother’s Day was being celebrated—upset at the commercialization—and she and her sister Ellsinore spent their family inheritance trying to change the emphasis back to where it belonged. She was especially angered by the printed greeting card and, in the book, Women Who Made a Difference, Malcolm S. Forbes quotes her as saying:

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.” —Anna Jarvis

Interesting to note that Anna Marie Jarvis never married, had no children and died quite poor.

Calling Mom on Mother’s Day


According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, Mother’s Day is often the busiest day of the year for phone volume, but it’s not what it once was. The reasons cited were that “fewer sons and daughters remember to call”—and that it didn’t matter because 42 percent of adults say they see or talk with a parent every single day, up from 32 percent who said the same in 1989. A study by U.S.-based international calling firm, VIP Communications, found call volume on Mother’s Day is 8 percent higher than at New Year, 11 percent higher than Valentine’s Day and 62 percent up on Halloween.

Mother’s Day Gifts


Break out your wallet. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent $140.73 on gifts last year. The total spending they estimate is expected to reach $16.3 billion.

And a survey taken by BIGresearch, a consumer intelligence firm, says that the more indulgent gifts such as electronics and jewelry are popular gift options—a whooping 31.2 percent of gift-givers are planning on buying mom silver, gold or diamonds.

How’s Mom Doing?

Women sure are hard on other women, especially when it comes to mothering. Views about how well mothers are doing their jobs according to a current Pew survey say that a 54 percent majority think that mothers of children under age 18 were doing a worse jobs than their mothers did some 20 or 30 years ago.

But moms also have their hands full today managing schedules and keeping outside influence at bay. There is broad agreement that it is harder to be a parent than it was in the 1970s or 80s.


This post is part of the series: Curious Customs: Stories Behind Popular Holidays

We take holidays for granted in that we celebrate them according to tradition, but where did the tradition come from? Why do we buy a Christmas tree? Why are hearts popular on Valentines? What is the reason we decorate pumpkins for Halloween? Find out in this series.

  1. The History of Valentine’s Day
  2. The Origin of Presidents' Day: Who Are We Celebrating?
  3. Who Was St. Patrick?
  4. Origin of April Fool’s Day
  5. The Science, History and Culture Behind the Spring Equinox
  6. Curious Customs: Stories Behind Popular Holidays—Passover Seder
  7. Curious Customs & Stories Behind Mother’s Day
  8. History & Origins of Labor Day
  9. The Origins of Common Good Luck Traditions
  10. Three Superstitions and Their Origins
  11. The History of the Olympic Games
  12. What is All Hallows Eve? The Customs and Origins of Halloween
  13. The Origins of Thanksgiving: The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth