Mother's Day

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Mother's Day

Type of Holiday: Promotional
Date of Observation: Second Sunday in May
Where Celebrated: Australia, England, United States
Symbols and Customs: Carnation
Colors: Mother's Day is associated with the colors red and white. Some people wear white CARNATIONS on this day to honor mothers who have died and red or pink carnations for those who are living.
Related Holidays: Father's Day, Mid-Lent Sunday


The observation of a national holiday in honor of mothers is due largely to the efforts of Anna Jarvis, who was born in Grafton, West Virginia, in 1864 and spent most of her adult life in Philadelphia. Her constant longing for the West Virginia countryside and for the family and friends she'd grown up with provided her with the theme for her Mother's Day movement, and it struck a familiar chord with other sons and daughters who had moved away from their home towns.

Jarvis's own mother was a model of domestic nurturing and responsibility. Although she had lived through many tragedies, including the deaths of seven of her eleven children, she never lost her faith in God. She cared for her children when they were ill, looked after a husband who was considerably older than she, and gave up her own dream of a college education. After she died, Jarvis helped arrange a special service at the church in Grafton to commemorate the work her mother had done there.

Eventually Jarvis decided that she wanted to honor her mother on a much larger scale-by honoring all mothers with their own special day on the second Sunday in May. She wrote letters to politicians, newspaper editors, and church leaders, and organized a committee, known as the Mother's Day International Association, to promote the new holiday. As a church organist and Sunday school teacher herself, Jarvis was familiar with Children's Day (the second Sunday in June), which had been observed since the 1870s. She wanted Mother's Day to stand closer to MEMORIAL DAY , so that people would remember the sacrifices their mothers had made for their families, just as they remembered the sacrifices their sons had made for their country. Jarvis's home church, Andrews Methodist Episcopal, dedicated the International Mother's Day Shrine in 1962. The shrine hosts events each May to honor mothers, including a tea and a concert. The first official Mother's Day services were held in May of 1908. President Woodrow Wilson gave the day national recognition in 1914, and by the late 1920s, Mother's Day was one of the more prominent American holidays. But what Jarvis had originally envisioned as a church-based celebration of maternal love and sacrifice gradually came to embody the mounting tension in American culture between Christianity and commercialism. Greeting card manufacturers were quick to jump on the Mother's Day bandwagon, and the new holiday soon became the fourth largest for card buying in the United States-after CHRISTMAS , VALENTINE'S DAY, and EASTER.

Mother's Day has also served as a focal point for various cultural debates involving women, justice, and inequality. Coretta Scott King, the wife of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., led a Mother's Day march in 1968 to rally support for poor mothers and their children. In the 1970s the National Organization for Women used Mother's Day to stage rallies for the Equal Rights Amendment, to promote access to child care, and to stage banquets supporting equality for women. In the 1980s, the Women's Party for Survival, founded by Helen Caldicott, used the holiday to stage antinuclear demonstrations.

Other events commemorating Mother's Day are held to raise awareness for women's health concerns. The Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization, founded in 1978 to provide support for breast cancer patients, holds Walk to Empower events on Mother's Day. Based in Chicago, the Walk to Empower spread to twelve cities by 2007, with more than 40,000 participants. Australia's annual Mother's Day Classic Run/Walk raises funds for the National Breast Cancer Foundation. Held since 1998, the Classic has spread to numerous cities throughout the country. More than 50,000 participated in 2007.

Sometimes Mother's Day is confused with Mothering Sunday (see MID-LENT SUNDAY ), an English holiday that falls on the fourth Sunday in LENT. But Mother's Day is now observed in England as well, and the traditions associated with Mothering Sunday have been largely forgotten. A growing number of Protestant churches celebrate the second Sunday in May as the Festival of the Christian Home, an attempt to emphasize the role of the family as a whole, rather than just mothers.



During Victorian times, specific flowers had served as symbols for such complex emotions as sorrow, remembrance, hope, faith, longing, and love. Because they were associated with women and the home, flowers were a natural symbol of femininity and domestic happiness. Commercial florists in the United States reinforced these symbolic associations with great effectiveness. By 1918, the advertising slogan of the Society of American Florists was "Say It with Flowers."

Because her own mother had loved white carnations, Anna Jarvis urged people to wear them in honor of their mothers on the first national observance of Mother's Day. The unprecedented demand for white carnations boosted prices and caused shortages in some areas. To avoid similar problems in subsequent years, the floral industry tried to shift the focus from white carnations to flowers in general, encouraging people to decorate their homes, churches, and cemeteries with flowers and offering special Mother's Day bouquets. Year after year, the industry came up with elaborate campaigns urging people to buy roses, potted plants, corsages, spring flowers in baskets, and other floral arrangements for their mothers.

Jarvis lobbied hard against the floral industry's "profiteering." She even proposed substituting celluloid buttons for white carnations as the official badge of the holiday, and urged people to stop buying flowers or any other gifts for the occasion. Although she was not able to rid the holiday of its commercial aspects, it was the carnation-her mother's favorite-that survived as the main symbol for maternal purity, faithfulness, and love. Chronic shortages in the supply of white carnations led florists to promote the idea of wearing red (or pink) carnations to honor living mothers and white flowers to honor the deceased.


Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Religious Holidays and Celebrations. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1966. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.


International Mother's Day Shrine Library of Congress Mother's Day Central Mother's Day Classic Run/Walk Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Mother's Day

Second Sunday in May
The setting aside of a day each year to honor mothers was the suggestion of Anna M. Jarvis of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, whose own mother had died on May 9, 1906. She held a memorial service and asked those attending to wear white carnations—a gesture that soon became a tradition. By 1914 President Woodrow Wilson had proclaimed a national day in honor of mothers, and some people still wear carnations on the second Sunday in May—pink or red for mothers who are living and white for those who have died.
Sometimes Mother's Day is confused with Mothering Sunday, an English holiday that falls on the fourth Sunday in Lent. But Mother's Day is now observed in England as well, and the traditions associated with Mothering Sunday have been largely forgotten. A number of Protestant churches have designated this day as the Festival of the Christian Home .
See also Children's Day
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 353
AnnivHol-2000, p. 92
BkHolWrld-1986, May 14
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 133
DictDays-1988, p. 78
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 229

Celebrated in: Panama, Republic of Georgia

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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