Why do we celebrate Mother’s Day?
Mother’s Day is a celebration honoring the mother of the family, as well as motherhood, maternal bonds, and the influence of mothers in society.
Mother’s Day was started in the early 20th century by an American, Anna Jarvis, who incidentally never became a mother. Born in 1864, she was 12 years old when she heard her mother, Ann Marie Jarvis, praying that she hoped someone would start a commemoration day to recognize the service mothers render to humanity in every field of life. Anna never forgot that prayer.
Ann Marie’s prayer was no maudlin sentiment about motherhood. It was rooted in her social and peace activism and community work. She had formed Mothers Day Work Clubs in the churches in West Virginia, where she lived. Through these clubs, women joined hands and successfully addressed local health and sanitation issues that caused many child deaths.
During the American Civil War (1861-65), Ann Marie urged the clubs to stay neutral and to nurse soldiers on both sides. After the war, she organised a Mothers’ Friendship Day to bring together soldiers and civilians of varying political beliefs. It became an annual event for several years, to promote peace and friendship.
In 1907, two years after Ann Marie died, her daughter Anna, now in her forties, started an aggressive campaign to establish Mother’s Day in the US. Within a couple of years it caught on, and in 1914 it became an official holiday in the US. Many countries adapted the US holiday, changing the date to fit existing celebrations that honoured mothers. For instance, Mothering Sunday in the United Kingdom is the fourth Sunday of Lent (the 40-day period before Easter).
Sadly, Anna Jarvis was dismayed to see the rapid commercialisation of Mother’s Day. She remarked: “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.”
That sentimental, apolitical, flowers-and-candy version of Mother’s Day is familiar to us today. But many people have never even heard of Anna and Ann Marie Jarvis, or of the prequel to Anna Jarvis’ story.
In 1872, when Anna was only about eight years old, another American had already lobbied for Mother’s Day. That was poet, writer, editor and political activist Julia Ward Howe, who asked that June 2 be observed as Mother’s Day. Her efforts were unsuccessful, but her “Appeal to womanhood throughout the world”, written in 1870, partly as a response to America’s long and bloody civil war, came to be known as the “Mother’s Day Proclamation”. In it, she wrote:
“… Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies.
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: “Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe out dishonour,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace…
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held …
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.” Julia Ward Howe’s proclamation was profoundly political. Unconcerned with the reproductive role of women and the sweetness of motherhood, it urged women to oppose war, to work for peace, and to assert their voices in the politics of the day. Just as men left their homes and families to wage war, it said, women should do so to wage peace.
So this Mother’s Day, by all means, cook your mom a special meal, and give her a card to tell her she’s special. If you’re a dad, of course you should teach your children to honour their mother, appreciate her hard work, and give her a day off not just today but every week.
But teach them also that Mother’s Day has its roots in political activism for peace and reconciliation. Tell them it was born of community work to improve living conditions, and that it’s a day to honour not only one’s own mother but all mothers. As comedian Jimmy Fallon recently observed, if you hire a cleaning lady to give your mom the day off, you’re basically just making someone else’s mom work on Mother’s Day.
Happy Mother’s Day!
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