First U.S. Mother’s Day Was Born Out of Heartsick Regret
I went through most of my life without suspecting any controversy about Mother’s Day. Other than Woody Allen, I didn’t know of anybody who didn’t love his mother.
It’s the fifth commandment for Protestants, and the fourth for Catholics, to honor our mothers. And the Book of Proverbs tells Protestant, Catholic and Jew alike not to depart from her teaching. It can get a little dicey if your mother has departed from her own mother’s teaching, but I assume you’re still supposed to honor her.
The Judeo-Christian faiths aren’t the only ones that honor mothers. The Confucian concept of “filial piety” mandated respect for parents in that tradition. This was a major sticking point when when missionaries tried to export Buddhism to China. It was difficult for them to explain how celibacy (no grandchildren), voluntary disengagement from the material world (uselessness) and a mendicant priesthood (begging) wouldn’t dishonor Chinese mothers.
Modern observances of Mother’s Day vary from country to country. I remember that, when I was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone 40 years ago, the adjoining Latin American republic celebrated Mother’s Day on December 8, which is the (Catholic) Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
It’s true that Panama was heavily Catholic, but that doesn’t fully explain its celebration of Mother’s Day on December 8, because they could have chosen the Feast of the Nativity (Mary’s birth) in September, or Christmas (when Mary first gave birth). By choosing December 8, Panama acknowledged that Mary became a mother at the moment of conception.
The origins of our own annual observance on the second Sunday in May are in dispute.
Henderson, Kentucky educator Mary Towles Sasseen copyrighted a book in 1893 that guided teachers in how to conduct Mother’s Day celebrations in school. Along with her sister, she helped organize the first documented Mother’s Day observance six years earlier in Springfield, Ohio schools.
On Feb. 7, 1904, retired Notre Dame football coach Frank Hering spoke to a national convention of the Fraternal Order of Eagles in Indianapolis. His topic was “Our Mothers and Their Importance in Our Lives.” His supporters claim that this was the “first-ever public address on behalf of making Mother’s Day a national holiday.” Hering reportedly continued to speak on behalf of a national observance over the next decade.”
Sasseen, too, traveled extensively to promote the idea, but died in 1906 before she could win its approval.
Enter the Jarvis women of Grafton, West Virginia. Ann Reeves Jarvis organized mothers’ work days in the 1850’s to attend to community sanitation and public health issues, with special emphasis on infant and maternal mortality. In the 1860s, the Grafton mothers gathered to tend to the wounds of Civil War soldiers from both armies.
The men of West Virginia were badly divided before, during and after the Civil War. Reconciliation between the male victors and vanquished appeared unlikely.
But Ann organized Mothers’ Friendship Day picnics and other events after the war to promote peace among the antagonistic neighbors.
Ann raised a modern daughter, Anna, who left her small hometown to seek her fortune in a big city (Philadelphia). Think of the Mary Richards character in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Ann Marie in That Girl. She never married, never bore children of her own. But when Ann died in 1905, daughter Anna became very nostalgic about the mom she had left behind.
Two years later, her grief led her to campaign for the creation of a national Mother’s Day. On May 10, 1908, Mother’s Day celebrations debuted at the Grafton church where Ann had taught Sunday School, and at the Wanamaker’s department store auditorium in Philadelphia.
Anna did not make the trip back to her home town, but she sent 500 white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower, with instructions that Grafton sons and daughters were to wear them to honor their own mothers, and to represent the purity of a mother’s love.
Anna was able to go full-time in her campaign, with the patronage of H. J. Heinz and John Wanamaker. There was resistance in the U.S. Senate. But Anna won the endorsement of the World Sunday School Association. She spoke at florists’ conventions, and accepted their donations.
Eventually, Congress approved the national observance, and President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law. The first national observance came the second Sunday in May, 1914. The observance caught on, and it was a good time to be in the carnation business.
Business was so good, in fact, that Anna began to have second thoughts. The commercialization of her high-minded gesture began to sicken her stomach. She turned against her erstwhile allies and patrons.
She denounced candy makers, florists and greeting card manufacturers as “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.”
When she attempted to trademark the white carnation with “Mother’s Day” text, the Florists Telegraph Delivery association concluded that she just felt cheated of her cut. They offered her a commission on white carnations, but this just further enraged her.
She wrote that she wanted Mother’s Day to be a “day of sentiment, not profit.”
She was angry when a commemorative Postal Service stamp included a vase of carnations in the frame with the famed Whistler’s Mother painting, because she viewed it as a sly advertisement for the floral industry.
Greeting cards rated no higher than carnations in Anna’s book. “A maudlin, insincere printed card or ready-made telegram means nothing,” she wrote, “except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world.” She observed that “Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.”
She was fierce in her personal claim to the holiday. When a Henderson group planned a ceremony to recognize her along with Sasseen and Hering, Jarvis attacked the two others and threatened legal action against any rival who used the Mother’s Day name or created any activities related to Mother’s Day. I doubt that Ann would have felt honored by Anna’s attitude at this point.
Anna went on to disrupt charity events in which carnations were sold, and was arrested for disorderly conduct. She lambasted Eleanor Roosevelt for participating in Mother’s Day fundraising events for charities that sought to reduce infant and maternal mortality, a cause near and dear to Ann’s heart.
Anna eventually went door-to-door in Philadelphia gathering signatures on a petition to rescind Mother’s Day. A penniless, embittered, childless and unmarried old woman, she became a recluse and a hoarder. It was a long process, but she had obviously and finally lost her mind.
She spent her final years in a Pennsylvania insane asylum, where she may have thought herself friendless, but she wasn’t. Thick-skinned but grateful florists subsidized her stay at the asylum til she died in 1948.
There is much to learn from Anna Jarvis. Her criticisms of commercialization deserve our serious consideration, not only regarding Mother’s Day, but Father’s Day, 4th of July, Memorial Day, and especially Christmas.
She was right that mothers don’t crave Hallmark Cards or telegrams or even carnations, but the companionship and affection of their own children and grandchildren. Time, they want. And that, few of us are willing to bestow. Posthumous rhetorical flourishes and sentimental gestures can be appropriated by others. Quality time with your mom while she’s still kicking? Nobody can take that away from you.
It doesn’t have to be on the second Sunday in May. Mom will be happy to see you on the other 364 days of the year. But don’t put it off. Later can slide into never, as it did for Ann and Anna Jarvis. Count yourself lucky every day that you get to visit with her.
After she’s gone and you can’t visit anymore, the Ten Commandments don’t expire. You still need to honor your mother, that you may live long in the land God has given you. It’s shameful if your kids know more about Beyonce and Rihanna than they know about their own grandmother. And that shame rests on you. Honor your mother.
Tell and re-tell her story within your family, during car rides, at fast food tables. Eyes can roll. Your kids will survive annoyance, impatience. They may not survive rootlessness and abandonment to a hostile, toxic youth culture. They need to know that they came from somewhere. They came from somebody. They do not belong to their peers, nor do their peers belong to them. This is the lesson Anna Jarvis learned too late.
by Bart Stinson