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A History of Mother's Day

Mother's Day marks a day when we pay tribute to our mothers, the special women who have nurtured and cared for us. The history of Mother's Day begins in the Ancient world. Both Greek and Roman cultures had festivities honoring goddesses who they believed to be the mothers of all gods. Although these were pagan celebrations, Christians later instituted their own celebrations around the Spring holidays. They brought gifts during the Lenten season to the churches where they were baptized as a way to honor their "Mother Church." During the Medieval period, this Mothering Sunday became a time for working children and teenagers to return home to visit their mothers. During the Georgian era, in the 17th century, working English youth returned home, bringing their mothers small gifts or "mothering cakes" on Mothering Sunday. Other foods such as "furmety," sweet boiled grains, were popular for the holiday. In Scotland, "carlings," or fried pancakes, were served for this special occasion.

In America during the Victorian era, Julia Ward Howe, who penned the words to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," suggested setting aside a day to honor mothers and to promote peace in the country. This idea was furthered by Anna Jarvis (1864-1948), from whom we now trace the national observance of Mother's Day. Anna was an unmarried woman who shared a close friendship with her mother, a minister's wife who faithfully served in their church's Sunday school program for 20 years. Anna herself graduated from a West Virginia ladies seminary and then moved back home to be with her family. In 1905, during the Edwardian era, her mother passed away. Grieving over the devastating loss of her dearest mother, Jarvis began writing letters to ministers, businessmen and politicians, asking for their support of a national holiday for children to honor their mothers. Jarvis strongly believed that such a day would strengthen family ties and give mothers the respect they were due. Her letter-writing campaign also continued her own mother's efforts to institute "Mother Friendship Days" in the aftermath of the Civil War, as a means to bring people together in reconciliation.

Finally, in 1908, the first Mother's Day service was held. Jarvis sent 500 white carnations, her mother's favorite flower, to the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, in Grafton, West Virginia. In a telegram to the congregation, Miss Jarvis stated that: "Each one present will be given a white carnation; mothers will be given two, in memory of the day. These five hundred carnations are given by a loyal, loving daughter in honor and sacred memory of her good and faithful mother, Mrs. Ann M. Jarvis, who worked faithfully and earnestly for twenty long years, as an earnest teacher in our Sunday School, who only a few years ago departed to that better world to reap the reward of her labors here. Every one is asked to wear this flower. The white carnation is preferred because it may be thought to typify some of the virtues of motherhood; ... whiteness stands for purity; its lasting qualities, faithfulness; its fragrance, love; its wide field of growth, charity; its form, beauty..." The following year, Miss Jarvis sent 700 carnations for the same purpose, and over the years, sent over 10,000 carnations as personal gifts to the Andrews Church. Carnations--red for living and white for deceased--are now worn all over the world as emblems of the purity, strength and endurance of motherhood. Two years later, West Virginia adopted Mother's Day as a state holiday, and other states soon followed suit. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May to be observed nationally in honor of Mother's Day.