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The History and Origins of Mother's Day

Larry Slawson received his master's degree from UNC Charlotte in 2018. He specializes in history.

Vintage postcard made by Northern Pacific Railway, 1916

Vintage postcard made by Northern Pacific Railway, 1916

What Is the Meaning of Mother's Day?

What is Mother’s Day? How did it begin? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, why do people around the world celebrate this annual holiday?

This article explores these questions in an attempt to trace both the origins and significance of this special holiday. As millions of people around the world take the time to celebrate the love they hold for their mothers, the history and origins of this day are too often forgotten by the world at large.

From its humble beginnings in the 20th century to the more elaborate and modernized celebrations seen today, Mother's Day continues to hold a special place in the hearts and minds of not only Americans but the rest of the global community as well.

Anna Jarvis is credited with creating Mother's Day.

Anna Jarvis is credited with creating Mother's Day.

Origins of Mother's Day

The modern celebration of Mother’s Day can be traced to the early 20th century. Beginning in the United States, following initiatives first proposed by a woman named Anna Jarvis, the holiday was established in 1908 to honor mothers around the world for their love and support and the sacrifices made to both their families and society at large.

Anna Jarvis, who was a social activist at the time, felt that a day commemorating mothers was of the utmost importance. As she once stated, “A mother is the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world.” Jarvis’s own commitment to the cause was due, unsurprisingly, to her desire to honor her own mother’s life and contributions to society.

Although the first Mother’s Day was celebrated in 1908, the United States Congress initially rejected the proposal to make “Mother’s Day” an official holiday, as they jokingly proclaimed that they would also have to establish a “Mother-in-law’s Day” as well.

Despite their hesitation, however, Jarvis and her followers continued to push back against Congress. By 1911, nearly all of the U.S. states observed the holiday, and by 1914 President Woodrow Wilson officially designated the second Sunday in May as a national holiday to honor mothers.

The modern celebration of Mother’s Day can be traced to the early 20th century.

The modern celebration of Mother’s Day can be traced to the early 20th century.


By the 1920s, however, Jarvis came to resent the newfound holiday as she felt that it had become far too commercialized. With companies selling Mother’s Day cards, candy, and gifts, Jarvis argued that the holiday had become exploited by businesses who only sought to make large profits.

For Jarvis, this was deeply troubling, as she felt that companies and businesses had moved the focus of Mother’s Day away from sentiment to only profit. Rather than buy pre-made gifts and cards, Jarvis felt that people should honor their mothers through handwritten notes.

As Mother’s Day became a growing industry for companies around the country, Jarvis began to actively protest against the holiday, establishing widespread boycotts of businesses that exploited the holiday for commercial gain.

In 1923, Jarvis led a large-scale protest against a candy makers’ convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Two years later, Jarvis and her followers also protested a meeting held by the “American War Mothers.” Jarvis was so angered by the “American War Mothers” and their decision to raise money through the selling of carnations on Mother’s Day that she was later arrested at the event for “disturbing the peace.” Later, Jarvis even threatened multiple lawsuits against companies that used the holiday for profitable gain, though none of these attempts resulted in victories for her new cause.

Quote by Jarvis

“A mother is the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”

— Anna Jarvis

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Days set aside to honor motherhood have been around for quite some time.

Days set aside to honor motherhood have been around for quite some time.

Mother's Day Around the World

Although the first “official” Mother’s Day was celebrated in the United States, with numerous countries around the world following suit soon after, days set aside to honor motherhood have been around for quite some time.

  • United Kingdom: The holiday is known as “Mothering Sunday.”
  • Greece: Mother’s Day is celebrated as part of a religious ceremony with ties to the Eastern Orthodox Church.
  • Catholic-oriented countries: The celebration of Mother’s Day is often referred to as “Virgin Mary Day.”
  • Former countries of the Soviet Union: These countries celebrate “International Women’s Day.”
  • Hindu countries: Mother’s Day has a deep history in Hindu countries, such as Nepal, that precedes the modern-day celebration (inspired by the United States) by several centuries. According to Hindu tradition, Mother’s Day is referred to as “Mata Tirtha Aunshi,” which translates to “Mother Pilgrimage Fortnight.” Hindu countries celebrate the holiday on the “New Moon” day of Baisakh (April or May).
  • Buddhist countries: The Buddhist festival of Ullambana, which is derived from the story “Maudgalyayana and His Mother," celebrates mothers.

When Is Mother's Day Celebrated?

For most countries of the world, the celebration of motherhood is celebrated between February and May. This is not always the case, however. Some countries, such as Mongolia, celebrate Mother’s Day in June.

What About Muslim Countries?

Currently, Islamic countries remain one of the few areas of the world that do not celebrate Mother’s Day. However, according to teachings from the Quran, children are taught from an early age to give prioritize loving their mothers over their fathers.

The Holiday's Legacy

In closing, Mother’s Day continues to be celebrated in the United States on the second Sunday of each May, despite the efforts of Anna Jarvis to reform the holiday’s wayward trek into commercialism during the early 20th century. The day remains one of the most profitable days of the year for the sale of both flowers and greeting cards.

Church attendance has become quite popular for Mother’s Day, as well, rivaling only Easter and Christmas with the number of individuals attending religious services and ceremonies.

While it is true that commercialism has destroyed many of the original traits and characteristics of early Mother’s Day celebrations, one could also argue that the efforts of businesses have kept the holiday and its worldwide celebration alive over the last century.

Nevertheless, it is this author’s opinion that we should always remember the true meaning of Mother’s Day and not allow this special day to be overshadowed by notions of greed and commercialism. Mother’s Day represents a special day that should not be motivated by gift-giving or receiving. Rather, it is a day of love and honor for the one person in the world that loves us most.

So on this Mother’s Day, why not avoid the expensive gifts and pre-written cards and instead express the love you hold for your mother in your own words? Rather than buy your mother a gift, why not set aside time to be with them on this special day? Your simple presence and words of love mean more to your mother than all the gifts that money can buy, I promise.

© 2019 Larry Slawson


Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on May 13, 2019:

Thanks everyone! @Shepards Very neat! I had read somewhere that a few other countries celebrate two different mother's days as well.

@Pamela It sounds like you had a great day! I'm very glad :) Glad you enjoyed the article as well!

@John I'm so glad you enjoyed, thank you!

@Liz That is really interesting! I had never heard it called "Mothering Sunday" until I wrote this article.

Sam Shepards from Europe on May 13, 2019:

In my region we have 2 mother's days. The original one for my region is August 15 and the imported one like everyone else.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 12, 2019:

I didn't really know how Mother's Day started, so thank you for that information. I do think it is over commercialized, like every other holiday. I enjoy it however as my oldest son and precious wife came over bearing food, so we had a lovely afternoon, I receivered flowers from another son that doesn't live nearby, and I also reciever several cards and numerous phone calls. I am grateful, but my view of this holiday being over-commercialized hasn't changed. This is a very interesting article.

John Ward on May 11, 2019:

Larry, I knew that Motherś day originated in the States, but did not know the history. I thank you for the enlightenment. Good lesson.

Liz Westwood from UK on May 11, 2019:

In the UK we celebrate Mothers day a few weeks before Easter. My mother was always adamant that it was called Mothering Sunday. Church was well-attended on that day.

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