Saluting Mothers Everywhere Is Not Just an American Tradition

John M. Dabbs

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My mother, Phyllis Dabbs.John Dabbs/Photographer

Honoring motherhood is observed differently around the world. The United States present version of Mother’s Day was created by Anna Jarvis in 1908. It became an official US holiday in 1914. While the dates and celebrations vary around the land, Mother's Day traditionally involves recognition of mothers and presenting them with flowers, cards, or the gift of a meal she doesn't have to make herself.

Mothers' Day

My mother, your mother, they have at least two things in common. They are women and mothers. Mothers are seen and mothers are heard, yet we know in our family we should always rank third. Mother's and fathers should rank one and two, my parents are special - and so are yours too.

Growing up in the Bristol - Bluff City, Tennessee area, I was fortunate enough to be in the woods and mountains while growing up. We lived alongside my grandfather's farm and helped with it and our own garden. During my elementary school years, my mother was not just a scout leader, mother, cook, housekeeper, tailor, book-keeper, and an educational assistant - she held one of the most important jobs she'd ever hold. She was my mom.

My mother taught both of us, my sister and me, many special lessons that allowed us to grow and learn about life and the world around us. I like to think she was not just special to me and our family, because she is smart and talented. She used to volunteer her time as an art teacher at our elementary school and painted large paintings for the school auditorium, in her spare time when she wasn't helping with the PTA.

She has always been my cheerleader, my coach, and my confidant. I'm sure she has many friends who share the same traits and values because being a mom is too special not to emulate from generation to generation.

History of Mother’s Day

Celebrating mothers and motherhood is traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The held festivals to honor the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. The earliest resemblance of our present holiday was the early Christian festival "Mothering Sunday."

Mothering Sunday was a major tradition, for a period, in the United Kingdom and across parts of Europe. The celebration would occur on the fourth Sunday in Lent. Mothering Sunday was a time when the faithful would return to their "mother church" (the main church near their home) for a special service. Eventually the festival degraded into a secular holiday where children would give their mothers tokens of appreciation. The custom fell out of favor until it was merged with the American Mother's Day in the 1930s and 1940s. Once a major tradition in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, this celebration fell on the fourth Sunday in Lent and was originally seen as a time when the faithful would return to their “mother church”—the main church in the vicinity of their home—for a special service. Over time the Mothering Sunday tradition shifted into a more secular holiday, and children would present their mothers with flowers and other tokens of appreciation. This custom eventually faded in popularity before merging with the American Mother’s Day in the 1930s and 1940s.

Mother's Day origins in America

In the years before the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia worked to start "Mothers' Day Work Clubs" to teach woman how to care for their children. The clubs became a unifying force in areas divided after the Civil War. Jarvis organized "Mothers' Friendship Day" in 1968, where mothers of former Union and Confederate soldiers could promote healing and reconciliation of families and neighbors.

Abolitionist Julia Ward Howe wrote the "Mother's Day Proclamation" in 1870, calling mothers to unite to promote world peace. Howe campaigned for "Mother's Peace Day" in 1873, a day to be celebrated each year on the second of June. There were others who also inspired the holiday, such as Juliet Calhoun Blakely (a temperance activist), Mary Towles Sasseen, Frank Hering, and more. Hering is sometimes called "the father of Mothers' Day."

Anna Jarvis and a National Holiday

Anna Jarvis, the daughter of Anna Reeves Jarvis, conceived of Mother's Day as a way to honor her mother, and the sacrifices of other mothers for their children after her mother's death in 1905.

Jarvis secured funding from John Wanamaker of Philadelphia in May of 1908 to organize the first official Mother's Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. Thousands more attended a Mother's Day event at one of Wanamaker's retail stores in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Seeing the successful celebration of Mother's Day, Jarvis resolved to get the day added to the national holiday calendar. Though she remained unmarried and had no children, she argued on behalf of mothers everywhere, that American holidays were biased toward male achievements. Jarvis began a massive letter writing campaign to newspapers and politicians to encourage the adoption of a special day to celebrate motherhood.

Jarvis established Mother's Day International Association to help promote the cause, and by 1912 many states, towns, and churches had adopted Mothers' Day as an annual holiday. President Woodrow Wilson signed a the proclamation in 1914, officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Jarvis would denounce the holiday beginning in 1920, as the commercialization of the holiday ran rampant in the nation. By the time of her death in 1948 she had run through most of her wealth in legal fees in a fight to have the government remove the holiday from the calendar. Her image of the holiday commemorating the love and sacrifice of mothers was scarred by her observance of gift and floral shops marketing and using the holiday as a means of self promotion to make money.

International views

Mothers are celebrated around the world in many traditions. Thailand celebrates mothers in August on the birthday of their current queen. Ethiopian families gather each fall to sing and feast during the Antrosht festival - a multi-day celebration of motherhood.

The secular attitude toward the holiday has seen man people using the holiday to launch political events and rallies for feminist causes. We saw this in 1968 when Mother's Day was chosen by Coretta Scott King (wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) to host a march in support of underprivileged women and children.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Bristol, TN
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