Where does Mother’s Day come from?

Ask anyone to name a wholesome, family-oriented holiday and Mother’s Day is sure to come to mind. After all, what could be more selfless and pure than a Mother’s love (and showing her gratitude for it)?

But despite its virtuous image, Mother’s Day, with all its commercialization, can also be viewed in a less rosy light – so much so, that its very founder grew to detest what the holiday had come to represent.

So how and why, exactly, did this happen? And what are some better ways to get back to the true and original meaning of Mother’s Day?

A day of peace: Mother’s Day origins

Behind the cards, brunch and flowers, Mother’s Day was actually borne out of tragedy. Julia Ward Howe penned the original Mother’s Day Proclamation calling for a “Mother’s Day of Peace” in 1870 in response to the horrors of her experience tending to the wounded in the American Civil War and the ongoing Franco-Prussian War.  Three years later, in 1873, her followers marked the first “Howe’s Mother’s Day” in June to spread the message that mothers have a “sacred right” to protect the lives of their sons. 

The trauma of the Civil War inspired others to take action as well: in 1858, a feminist in West Virginia named Ann Reeves Jarvis organized a “Mother’s Friendship Day” in which veterans from both sides of the war were brought face-to-face for reconciliation. Ten years earlier, she also organized “Mother’s Day Work Clubs”  to “improve sanitary conditions and stem her community’s appalling infant mortality rates.”.

On May 12, 1907, on the anniversary of Ann Reeves Jarvis’s death, her daughter, Anna Maria Jarvis, held a memorial service in her honor at the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, making it the first observance of Mother’s Day as we know it today. Anna Maria organized another service a year later in the same church in Grafton and an even larger one in Philadelphia, where the 500 guests were each given a white carnation. 

Anna Reeves Jarvis later spoke of the significance of that day,  as well as the importance of the white carnations, which are now considered the symbol of Mother’s Day – not only because of its beauty and fragrance, but also because the flower does not shed its petals,  much as how a mother always holds her children close in her heart.

In 1912, the governor of West Virginia declared the second Sunday of each May a state holiday, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson designated the day as an official holiday nationwide, with Canada following suit the next year

From celebration to commercialization

Unfortunately, as the years went by, commercialization consumed much of the spirit and traditions of Mother’s Day. Sales of carnations became a robust industry and red carnations were soon introduced to meet demand, with the pithy sentiment that white flowers honored dead mothers and red the still living. 

As the pre-printed Mother’s Day card industry also grew, Jarvis became ever more incensed, thinking that people should create handwritten sentiments instead of paying some to give their mother something that they themselves did not write.

In 1923 Jarvis protested at a candy maker’s convention and was arrested for disturbing the peace. She formed a campaign to rescind Mother’s Day which continued until the 1940s when she was committed to a sanitarium. In a cruel twist of fate, the floral and greeting card industries that she helped to bolster paid for her to remain there until her death.

Better ways to observe Mother’s Day

This year alone, retailers expect $28 billion in gift sales (with an anticipated $1 billion on cards alone). But the commercialization goes beyond just dollar amounts,  critics also point out that our modern day version of the holiday  typically reinforces outdated gender dynamics.

Nevertheless, some incremental progress has occurred: The greeting cards associated with Mother’s Day have been changing since the 1950s to show mothers with more freedom, more daughters and more racially diverse families.

Of course, Jarvis would have preferred that we all celebrate Mother’s Day without pre-printed cards, flowers from the floral industry, or even candy (she believed that candy was for the giver, not the mother). Her original sentiment would also have dictated a handmade note or other personal, heartfelt gift, and then spending quality time reflecting on motherly contributions with perhaps a short discussion on how to make the world a better place.

This original sentiment of service and giving is one Mother’s Day tradition worth reviving and preserving, and one way to keep this spirit alive and help the world is to spread the word about how  air quality and climate change will impact future generations. Organizations like Mom’s Clean Air Force and Environment America are places where moms and everyone else work together to spread awareness and take action on air quality and climate change, and we can all try to reduce our waste and energy usage.

Our CEO is just one of many mothers at Molekule, and we are all dedicated to making the environment better for later generations. Keep an eye on this blog and our Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more information on the air, what is in it, and what we can do about keeping it breathable and clean for ourselves, our families and future generations.

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