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A Mother's Love

Mother’s Day is our reminder to celebrate birth and life. Why? Because we have a long and ancient history steeped in honoring mothers.

Only recently dubbed “Mother's Day,” the highly traditional practice of honoring of motherhood is rooted in antiquity, and past rites typically had strong symbolic and spiritual overtones; societies tended to celebrate goddesses and symbols rather than actual mothers. In fact, the personal, human touch to Mother’s Day is a relatively new phenomenon. Let’s take a short, warp-speed literary journey into the historical significance of honoring mothers.

Goddess IsisEarly Egyptian Roots

One of the earliest historical records of a society celebrating a mother deity may be found among the ancient Egyptians, who held an annual festival to honor the goddess Isis, who was commonly regarded as the mother of the pharaohs. Isis was a goddess in ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, whose worship spread throughout the Greco-Roman world. She was worshiped as the ideal mother and wife. She was the friend of slaves, sinners, artisans, and the downtrodden, as well as the listener to the prayers of the wealthy, maidens, aristocrats and rulers.

Mothering Day in EuropeFamily Gatherings with Mom

In the 1600s, a clerical decree in England broadened the celebration to include human mothers, earning the name Mothering Day, an especially compassionate holiday toward the working classes of England. During this Lenten Sunday, servants and trade workers were allowed to travel back to their towns of origin to visit their families. Mothering Day also provided a one-day reprieve from the fasting and penance of Lent so that families across England could enjoy a sumptuous family feast—with mother as the guest of honor.

History of American Celebration

When the first English settlers came to America, they discontinued the tradition of Mothering Day. While the British holiday would live on, the American Mother’s Day would be invented—with an entirely new history—centuries later.

Julia Ward Howe's Mother's Day Proclamation of 1870

The first North American Mother’s Day was conceptualized with Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870. Despite having penned “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” 12 years earlier, Howe had become so distraught by the death and carnage of the Civil War that she called on mothers to come together and protest what she saw as the futility of their sons killing the sons of other mothers. Howe called for an international Mother's Day celebrating peace and motherhood. In 1873, women’s groups in 18 North American cities observed this new Mother’s holiday. For the next 30 years, Americans celebrated Mothers' Day for Peace on June 2. Howe initially funded many of these celebrations, but most of them died out once she stopped footing the bill.

In spite of the decided failure of her holiday, Howe had nevertheless planted the seed that would blossom into what we know as Mother’s Day today. A West Virginia women’s group led by Anna Reeves Jarvis began to celebrate an adaptation of Howe’s holiday. In order to reunite families and neighbors that had been divided between the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War, the group held a Mother’s Friendship Day. Many middle-class women in the 19th century believed they bore a special responsibility as actual or potential mothers to care for the casualties of society and to turn America into a more civilized nation. 

After Anna Reeves Jarvis died, her daughter Anna M. Jarvis campaigned for the creation of an official Mother’s Day. In 1912, West Virginia became the first state to officially recognize Mother's Day, and in 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed it into national observance, declaring the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day. Anna Jarvis arranged for white carnations—her Mother’s favorite flower—to adorn the patrons and supporters as part of the celebration. Today, white carnations are used to honor deceased mothers, while pink or red carnations pay tribute to mothers who are still alive.

So, do your mother a favor and remember to stop and smell the flowers. As the great poet Gerard de Nerval penned, “Every flower is a soul blossoming in nature.”

Today, white carnations are used to honor deceased mothers, while pink or red carnations pay tribute to mothers who are still alive.

  • Julia Ward Howe