Brief History of Mother’s Day

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I’m not a big fan of Mother’s Day…at least not the way America celebrates it.

Same for Father’s Day and Valentine’s Day…and I’m even looking more dubiously on the big guns, like Christmas and Easter.

The way we did it in Israel (where I lived for 3 years during med school), was way better.  A few of us expatriots got together in simple quiet gatherings while the decidedly non-Christian world churned onward all around us.

Little fanfare.  Good friends and family.  Love, not stuff.

I rebel against the materialistic consumerism of the American take on these occasions.  Innately, I resist the implied obligation and communal guilt-pressure that these days somehow manage to impart upon an entire national populace.

American holidays today are so warped and insulated from their original meanings that trying to teach your children something valuable and – dare I even suggest it – remotely spiritual is virtually hopeless.  “Cool, Dad.  A cross.  Blood.  Sounds gross.  But if we act interested, can we do the egg-hunt?”

Occasionally, I brag to people that my wife and I don’t celebrate Mother’s / Father’s / Valentine’s Days.  Members of the American Holiday Axis of Evil, you’re either with them or against them.  We’ve George Bushed 3/10ths of the American Holiday calendar…and we’re proud of it!

It’s a good feeling – like we’re sidestepping this darker side of American culture in our own small way;  our own micro-insurrection against unchecked capitalism.  Abstinence from Valentine’s day is our own personal Toyota Prius of the immutable American celebration gauntlet.

Reflexively it seems, more than one person has lambasted me for being an out-of-touch chauvinistic male whenever I mention – nay whisper – any sort of criticism of Mother’s Day.  I’m clearly nothing more than Al Bundy with a stethoscope.  I denigrate the holiday because I can’t recognize the profoundly harrowing and endlessly sacrificial life led by all mothers.

I do admit that any of the holidays can be meaningful, even in America.  But I’ve found that in a family that tries to celebrate 6 birthdays, an anniversary, numerous other family birthdays, every single major holiday replete with lights, medically-catastrophic foods, lots and lots of material things and a whole bunch of forced smiles for the digital cameras…skipping a contrived holiday or two just should be ok.

Furthermore, I do recognize that motherhood, like fatherhood, like singlehood, like childhood, like professionalhood and laborerhood and mechanichood and office-workerhood and plumberhood…is a tough road.  Life is tough.  For everyone.

But I don’t really want to perpetuate American Materialism in regular recognition of these facts. It just so easily turns into some form of mild victim mentality…and that’s after the M.B.A.’s of society have grudgingly returned my wallet so I can fill it up again in time for the next Great American Event.

Turns out that the founder of modern Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis, abhorred the materialism that suffused her holiday as well.  I don’t know much about her, but I think I mighta liked her…and once upon a time, probably her holiday too.

Here’s a quick history about Mother’s Day I took directly from The Writer’s Almanac, one of my daily reads:

Today is Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day as we know it — where we celebrate our own mothers, with flowers, gifts, and cards — is relatively new, but annual celebrations to celebrate motherhood are an ancient practice.

The motherhood festivities have historically been in spring, the season of fertility. In ancient Egypt, there were celebrations to honor Isis, the loving mother-goddess, who is often shown in Egyptian art with the baby Horus at her breast, much like Mary and Jesus in later Christian iconography. The cult of the great mother-goddess Cybele began in Turkey and soon moved to Greece and Rome, and she was worshipped in some form for more than a thousand years. Her priestesses led wild celebrations, full of drinking, dancing, music, and all kinds of debauchery.

As the Roman Empire and Europe transitioned to Christianity, the Church set aside the fourth Sunday of Lent as a day to honor motherhood. It was a day to celebrate the Virgin Mary, and for people to honor their “mother church.”

In the 1600s, England declared an official Mothering Day for that fourth Sunday of Lent. It was a time when families were encouraged to get together, and servants or workers were allowed one day off work to go see their mothers, since many working-class families in England worked as servants on separate estates and rarely got to see each other. Mothering Day was also declared an exception to the fasting and penance of Lent, so that families could have a feast together.

When the pilgrims came to America, they stopped celebrating Mothering Day, just as they stopped celebrating most holidays that they thought had become too secular.

Mother’s Day was reintroduced to America in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe, who wanted to set aside a day of protest after the Civil War, in which mothers could come together and protest their sons killing other mothers’ sons.

But the woman who really created Mother’s Day as we know it was Anna Jarvis. Her mother had held Mother’s Friendship Days to reunite families and neighbors separated during the war, and when she died, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, worked to proclaim an official Mother’s Day to honor her mother and celebrate peace. And so on May 10, 1908, the first official Mother’s Day celebrations took place in Grafton, West Virginia, and at a church in Philadelphia. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson designated the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day.

But Mother’s Day became commercialized very quickly, especially in the floral industry, and Anna Jarvis was furious. She said, “What will you do to route charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers, and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest, and truest movements and celebrations?” But flower sales and card sales continued to grow, and Anna Jarvis died in poverty and without any children of her own.

In the last U.S. Census, there were an estimated 82.8 million mothers in this country, and about 96 percent of American consumers spend money for Mother’s Day.

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