Mother's Day honors mothers across the globe. This Mother's Day, learn more about the history of this holiday.

What is the History of Mother’s Day?

Moms. They’re the ones who kiss our bruises when we fall down. They’re the ones who comfort us when we’re upset. They’re the ones who encourage us when we’re feeling low and the ones who teach us valuable life lessons. Mothers are the strong, loyal, compassionate, intelligent, loving, and inspirational women we look up to. It only seems fitting to have a special day dedicated to celebrating mothers each year for all of their contributions to our lives. Mother’s Day is a day dedicated to celebrating mothers, motherhood, the influence of mothers in society, and maternal bonds. It is celebrated every year on the second Sunday in May. While mothers have been celebrated for centuries, Mother’s Day didn’t become an official holiday in the United States until the 20th century. 

Early Celebrations of Mothers 

Some historians think the earliest celebrations of mothers occurred with the ancient spring festival that celebrated mother goddesses. In Greece, the festival honored Rhea, wife of Cronus, and the mother of the gods and goddesses. In Rome, the festival celebrated Cybele, mother of goddesses. Ceremonies were held in Cybele’s honor 250 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. The Roman celebration, Hilaria, would take place annually. 

Mother’s Day in the United States

There is some controversy surrounding who, exactly, is responsible for the founding of Mother’s Day in the United States. 

The origins of Mother’s Day date back to the 19th century to the days before the Civil War. Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia was a lifelong activist and homemaker who taught Sunday school lessons. In the mid-1800s, Ann Reeves Jarvis created “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to teach mothers how to care for their children and to help combat unsanitary living conditions. Jarvis wanted to help mothers prevent the deaths of their children. She and her brother, who was a doctor, taught local mothers about the importance of boiling water and how to keep food from spoiling. 

Jarvis organized women’s brigades during the Civil War. The women who joined didn’t choose sides. Rather, they taught sanitation methods and provided nursing services that saved the lives of thousands of soldiers on both sides, according to the Library of Congress

Jarvis continued to promote peace and goodwill after the Civil War ended. She created Mothers Friendship Day—a family picnic that honored mothers. However, the real intention of this day was to reunite neighbors that may have had different political opinions. 

Julia Ward Howe also played an important role in the creation of Mother’s Day in the United States. Julia Ward Howe was a famous American poet, author, abolitionist, and women’s suffragette. During the Civil War, Howe volunteered with the United States Sanitary Commission, helping to provide hygienic hospital environments and sanitary conditions for soldiers who were wounded or sick. 

In 1861, Howe was inspired to write “Battle Hymn of the Republic” after she and her husband met Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Howe’s song was first published in February 1862. 

After the Civil War, Howe helped found the New England Women’s Club and the New England Women’s Suffrage Association. 

In 1870, Howe wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation, an appeal for women to unite for peace. In 1872, Howe asked that a Mother’s Day for Peace be celebrated every year on June 2. 

According to Farmer’s Almanac, Howe’s version of Mother’s Day was celebrated for approximately 30 years in Boston and other locations. 

Anna Marie Jarvis, Ann Reeves Jarvis’s daughter, is the woman credited for founding Mother’s Day as a holiday in the United States. 

During her lifetime, Ann Reeves Jarvis had expressed her hope that there would be a day that celebrated all mothers. Ann Reeves Jarvis is said to have ended one of her Sunday school lessons with the following prayer, “I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.” 

Ann Reeves Jarvis and her daughter, Anna Marie Jarvis, maintained a close relationship throughout their lives. Ann Reeves Jarvis died in 1905. 

In May 1907, Anna Jarvis held a memorial service at the church where her mother taught Sunday school, Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, in Grafton, West Virginia. After getting financial backing from department store owner John Wanamaker, Jarvis organized the first official Mother’s Day observance on May 10, 1908 at the same church in Grafton, West Virginia. That same day, thousands of people attended a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s stores in Philadelphia. 

Jarvis began a letter-writing campaign to politicians and newspapers urging the creation of a special day each year to honor mothers. 

In 1910, West Virginia’s governor was the first to issue the Mother’s Day proclamation. By 1911, every state in America had its own Mother’s Day observances. This led House Representative J. Thomas Heflin of Alabama and Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas to propose that Mother’s Day be observed nationally. Their proposal passed, and in 1914, United States President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill into law that designated the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. 

For the first few years, Mother’s Day was celebrated with church services that honored all mothers—both living and deceased. However, as time went on, Mother’s Day became more commercialized. 

Anna Jarvis felt that the commercialization of Mother’s Day overpowered its original sentiment. She became so upset with the commercialization of the holiday that she spent the years before her death trying to have Mother’s Day rescinded. 

Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday began in the 16th century and was strictly a religious holiday that had nothing to do with mothers. 

Centuries ago, it was customary for churchgoers in England to attend whatever church was closest to them every Sunday—these churches were known as “daughter” churches. However, it was important for churchgoers to attend their “mother” church—the main cathedral or church in the areaonce a year. So, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, churchgoers visited their “mother” church. Domestic servants were traditionally given the day off so that they could visit their mothers and families. This was often the only time families had the opportunity to get together. 

According to BBC, Mothering Sunday was also known as Refreshment Sunday because the fasting rules observed during Lent were relaxed for that one day. 

Simnel cake is a food especially associated with Mothering Sunday. Simnel cake is a fruit cake that consists of layers of cake and almond paste. Eleven balls of marzipan and sugar violets adorn the top of the cake. The eleven balls of marzipan represent the eleven disciples of Jesus (excluding Judas). 

Even though Mothering Sunday had been observed for centuries in British culture, it fell to the wayside by the 20th century. In the early 20th century a woman named Constance Penswick-Smith was inspired by the creation of the American Mother’s Day to bring back Mothering Sunday in the United Kingdom. 

Constance Penswick-Smith founded the Mothering Sunday Movement. She felt it was a shame that Mothering Sunday had fallen to the wayside and wanted to revive it. She even wrote a book in 1921 entitled “The Revival of Mothering Sunday.” 

The widespread revival of the holiday was influenced by American and Canadian troops serving abroad during World War II. Even when they were away from home, they felt a need to honor their mothers on Mother’s Day. The American and Canadian traditions were combined with the British traditions of Mothering Sunday. The holiday now has a more secular focus with the focus being on mothers and motherhood. 

Mother’s Day Around the World

Today, Mother’s Day is celebrated in countries around the world. Mothers are celebrated in different ways in different countries. 

Thailand

In Thailand, Mother’s Day was originally celebrated on April 15. However, in 1976, it was changed to August 12, the same day as the current Queen’s birthday. The Queen is seen as the mother of her Thai subjects. 

During the month of August, both homes and public places in Thailand are adorned with decorations, lights, and portraits of the Queen. On August 12, a country-wide candle-lighting ceremony takes place followed by firework displays. 

Indonesia

In Indonesia, Mother’s Day is celebrated on December 22, the date the first Indonesian “Women’s Congress” met in 1928. Because of its ties to feminist movements, Mother’s Day in Indonesia is meant to honor all women, regardless of whether they have children or not. 

Many Indonesian women are given flowers, cards, or small gifts on Mother’s Day. Fathers and children may also help with household chores on Mother’s Day; household chores are traditionally done by the women in the house.

Nepal

In Nepal, Mata Tirtha Puja (Mother’s Day) is celebrated in late April or early May. The timing of the celebration is determined by when the new moon falls in the month of Baisakh. The day is meant to honor all mothers, living and deceased. 

Those who wish to honor deceased mothers traditionally take a pilgrimage to the Mata Tirtha ponds located near Kathmandu. Children honor their mothers with small gifts and sweets. 

Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, Antrosht is celebrated at the end of the rainy season. When the rainy season ends, family members gather together at their homes for a big three-day celebration dedicated to mothers. A large feast is prepared. While sons typically supply the meat for the the meal, daughters bring cheese and vegetables. Unlike in some other cultures, mothers play an integral part in helping prepare the feast. 

Peru

Mother’s Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in May in Peru like it is in the United States. However, in Peru, thousands of people gather in cemeteries to honor all of the women in their families who have passed away. 

Mexico

Mother’s Day is always celebrated on May 10 in Mexico, no matter what day of the week it falls on. The day usually begins early in the morning with children going to their mother’s bedside to wake her up with a song. Children also put on skits or perform dances for their mothers during the day. It is customary to gather at restaurants for a large lunch or dinner to celebrate Mother’s Day in Mexico. In fact, Mother’s Day is the busiest day Mexican restaurants see, and reservations are required well in advance. 

Honoring Mothers on Mother’s Day

While ready-made cards, flowers, and gifts are lovely tokens of appreciation for mothers, you don’t need to spend a dime to show the mother figures in your life that you love and appreciate them. 

Kids can show the mother figures in their lives appreciation by making homemade cards or other crafts, helping with housework, delivering breakfast in bed, singing songs, putting on skits, or performing a dance. 

Visiting your mother on Mother’s Day will let her know that you love and appreciate her. Cook her a meal, order food for delivery, or take her out to eat. Bake her her favorite dessert. Offer to do a few chores around the house for her while you’re visiting. Sit down and watch your mom’s favorite movie with her. Go for a walk with her in the neighborhood or in a local park. Plant some flowers in her yard. 

If you don’t live close enough to visit your mom, give her a call and spend some quality time talking with her on the phone. Write her a letter telling her how much you appreciate her. Reminisce over some of your favorite memories. Share a meal with your mom over video chat. 

You don’t need to limit Mother’s Day celebrations to honoring mothers in the traditional sense. Honor birth mothers, foster mothers, adoptive mothers, pet mothers, grandmothers, and any other woman who has acted as a mother figure in your life. If a woman in your life has shown you care, love, support, or kindness, take Mother’s Day as an opportunity to show her that you love and appreciate her and what she’s done for you. 

No matter what you do on Mother’s Day, make sure it comes from your heart. The women you honor will be touched by any heartfelt gesture you make to show your love and appreciation of them. 

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Sierra M. Koester

Sierra Koester is an award-winning freelance writer and professional blogger. She earned her BA in Psychology in 2004 and has worked with several nonprofit agencies. She began her writing career in 2006 and has written extensively in the areas of health, psychology, and pets. Sierra advocates for the adoption of children as well as homeless animals. When she isn't writing, you can find Sierra with her nose in a book or hanging out with her two kitties, Carmine, a wise old orange tabby Sierra adopted when he was a kitten, and Tylan, a cat whom Sierra adopted after he was rescued from a hoarding situation in Thailand. You can learn more about Sierra by visiting http://www.sierrakoester.blogspot.com.