Mother's Day: History behind the celebration

Mother’s Day is celebrated at different times, and for different reasons around the world. In America, Mother’s Day has its origins in the accomplishments of two very remarkable women.

Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis was born in Virginia in 1832, the daughter of the Rev. Josiah W. and Nancy Kemper Reeves. The family later moved to Barbour County in what is now West Virginia. It is there that Jarvis is most loved and revered for her work with women’s organizations — as a humanitarian, a health worker, and an all-round amazing woman, a true peer of heroes like Mother Teresa.

In her 20s, Jarvis organized a series of Mothers Day Work Clubs in cities and towns in Virginia to raise awareness of health and sanitary conditions. Among other services, the clubs raised money for medicine, hired women to work for families in which the mothers suffered from tuberculosis, and inspected bottled milk and food.

During the Civil War, Jarvis urged the Mothers Day Work Clubs to declare their neutrality and provide relief to both Union and Confederate soldiers. The clubs treated the wounded and regularly fed and clothed soldiers stationed in the area. Jarvis also managed to preserve an element of peace in a community being torn apart by political differences. During the war, she worked tirelessly despite the personal tragedy of losing four of her children to disease. In all, eight of her 12 children died before reaching adulthood.

Near the end of the war, the Jarvis family moved to the larger town of Grafton. Tensions increased as both Union and Confederate soldiers returned at war’s end. In the summer of 1865, Ann Jarvis organized a Mothers Friendship Day at the courthouse in Pruntytown to bring together soldiers and neighbors of all political beliefs. The event was a great success despite the fear of many that it would erupt in violence. Mothers Friendship Day was an annual event for several years.

Upon her death in 1905, Jarvis’ daughter, Anna, dedicated her life to establishing a nationally recognized Mother’s Day, as a tribute to her own mother and the millions of hardworking and committed woman across America.

In 1907, Anna launched her campaign by handing out white carnations to congregants at her mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia. In 1908, her mother’s church acquiesced to Anna’s request to hold a special Sunday service in honor of mothers — a tradition that spread the next year to churches in 46 states. In 1909, Anna left her job and dedicated herself to a full-time letter-writing campaign, imploring politicians, clergymen and civic leaders to institute a national day for mothers.

In 1912, Jarvis’ efforts met with success: Her home state of West Virginia adopted an official Mother’s Day. Two years later, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution, signed by President Woodrow Wilson, establishing a national Mother’s Day emphasizing the role of women in their families. Ever since, Mother’s Day has been celebrated by Americans on the second Sunday in May.

However, it was a bittersweet triumph for Anna Jarvis. She grew to see Mother’s Day turn into a commercial spectacle far from the tribute she first envisioned. True to her mother’s own passion, Anna wanted Mother’s Day to be about giving voice to critical human rights issues and promoting the fair treatment of women in a time when sexual inequality is still a big problem. Mother’s Day today carries little of this message, overtaken as it has been by retailers and card and chocolate manufacturers.

“I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit,” Anna Jarvis once said.

So, this Mother’s Day, May 9, remember the struggles of great women like Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, and consider a tribute to your mother, wife, sister or daughter more in fitting with the true spirit of the day.

Jake Lynch is editor of the Issaquah Reporter, a sister paper of the Federal Way Mirror. Information courtesy of West Virginia Division of Culture and History.

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