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  • Natalie Taylor


Have you ever wondered when the holiday celebrating motherhood originated? Did you know that it started in West Virginia, and that it was all thanks to one woman who thought of it, and persisted in making it popular. Then regretted having done so. Here is the story.

Motherhood has been celebrated for millennia; perhaps not as an official holiday, but as an acknowledgement of the creation of life. The famous “goddess of Willendorf” at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, is a Paleolithic limestone sculpture of a woman, dating back some 30,000 years. The tiny figure—slightly over four inches tall, is believed to represent fertility and motherhood.

In ancient Egypt an annual festival was held for Isis, a goddess who represented the ideal mother and wife. Centuries later, the Greeks worshipped Rhea—the mother of all gods—in a spring festival, with offerings of honey cakes, and flowers.

Rhea’s motherhood is an epic story, to say the least. Her husband the king-god Cronus was convinced that one of his offspring would snatch the throne from him, as predicted by an oracle. Therefore, every time Rhea gave birth, he snatched the child and swallowed it up.

Finally Rhea figured out what to do. When her son Zeus was born, she swaddled a large stone and Cronus swallowed it, believing it was a child.

Rhea hid Zeus in a remote cave and he grew to adulthood, killed his father, and became the reigning god of Olympus, as had been predicted. Which is the stuff of Greek tragedy—a proud character believes he can avoid what has been predetermined, and eventually fate catches up with him.

In the Aztec world there was the goddess Coatlicue, venerated as the mother of all gods and men. She was depicted with a skirt made of serpents, sometimes called “the serpent woman.” She was affectionately known as Tonantzin, which in Nahuatl means “our little mother.” She was a major figure for the Aztecs, both feared and beloved.

These were some of the mothers worshipped in the ancient world. But how did we get the present day celebration of Mother’s Day, which has been taken up practically around the world?

We owe this to the love and dedication of a particular daughter to her mother. Ann Reeves Jarvis, from Grafton, West Virginia, was born in 1834. She had 13 children, of whom only four lived to adulthood. Her daughter Anne wanted to honor her mother, who had been an activist combating high infant and child mortality, and promoting a recognition of mothers’ work. She had expressed hope that someone “will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating…matchless service she renders to humanity.” She sought to provide medicine and supplies to sick families, and taught mothers about hygiene and sanitation, such as boiling drinking water.

When Ann died in 1905, her daughter Anna promised to fulfil her mother's dream, through a memorial day. She envisioned the holiday as a day to honor your mother, "For the Best Mother who ever Lived—Your Mother."

She chose the second Sunday in May because of an old Christian tradition of celebrating Mothering

Sunday on the fourth Sunday in Lent. It was a tradition dating back to mediaeval times and represented a return to one’s “mother church.” Anna envisioned a day not for all mothers, but an individual one for each family to honor its own mother. That is why she insisted it be called Mother’s Day—not Mothers’ Day.

Three years after Ann Jarvis's death, the first Mother's Day was in Grafton, and the celebration grew and grew in popularity. In 1910 Mother's Day became a West Virginia state holiday and in 1914 it was designated a national holiday by President Woodrow Wilson.

Ann Jarvis (1832-1905)

Anna had been honoring her mother with white carnations—her favorite flower, and everyone started bringing those to their mothers. This became one of the battles against commercialization which she fought because she saw the profiteering of florists on that day. By 1920, she was urging people not to buy flowers at all. Anna went on to spend every penny fighting the commercialization of Mother's Day, even trying to have the holiday rescinded. She died destitute at the age of 80, in 1948.

The holiday has persisted, not only in the United States, but all over the world where different nations have chosen different dates to celebrate it. In Mexico, for instance Dia de la Madre—Mother’s Day does not fall on a particular Sunday, it is celebrated on May 10, even if it is in the middle of the week. Since we all have a mother, it truly is a universal celebration.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Anna Jarvis (1864-1948)

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