(This article appeared in the May 2016 Senior Times)
Feminist organized first Mother's Day in 1908
Thanks to the efforts of American Ann Jarvis,
Mother’s Day began as a way of honouring the
sacrifices Mothers made for their children.
After gaining financial support from a Philadelphia
department store owner named John Wanamaker
in May 1908, she organized the first official
Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church
in Grafton, West Virginia. That same day, a wellattended
Mother’s Day event was held at one of
Wanamaker’s retail stores in Philadelphia. Canada
quickly picked up on its southern neighbour’s
initiative, and inaugurated Mother’s Day in 1909.
Following the success of her first Mother’s Day,
Jarvis, although never married and childless,
resolved to see her holiday added to the calendar
roster. An early feminist, she argued that
American holidays were biased toward male
achievements, so she started a letter writing
campaign to newspapers and politicians urging
the adoption of a special day honouring
motherhood. By 1912 many states, towns and
churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual
holiday, and Jarvis had established the
Mother’s Day International Association to
help promote her cause. Her persistence was
rewarded in 1914 when President Woodrow
Wilson signed a bill establishing the second
Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in the USA.
Jarvis had originally conceived of Mother’s Day
as a day of personal celebration between Mothers
and their families. Her version of the day involved
wearing a white carnation as a badge and visiting
one’s mother or attending church services. But
once Mother’s Day became a national holiday, it
was not long before many mercantile concerns
capitalized on its popularity.
By 1920 Jarvis became so disgusted by the crass
commercialization of the holiday that she urged
people to stop buying Mother’s Day paraphernalia.
She also launched several lawsuits against groups
that had used the name “Mother’s Day,” eventually
spending most of her personal wealth on legal fees.
Jarvis disowned the holiday altogether and, up until
her death in 1948, actively lobbied the government
to have it removed from the American Calendar.
Celebrations of Mothers and motherhood can be
traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who
held festivals in honour of the mother goddesses
Rhea and Cybele. The clearest precedent for modern
Mother’s Day is the early Christian festival known
as “Mothering Sunday.” Once a major tradition
in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, this
celebration fell on the fourth Sunday in Lent and was
originally seen as a time when believers would return
to their local “mother church” for a special service.
Over time the Mothering Sunday tradition
changed into a more secular holiday, and children
would present their mothers with flowers
and other gifts. This custom eventually faded in
popularity before merging with the American
Mother’s Day in the 1930s and 1940s. Due to its
religious connections, Mother’s Day in the United
Kingdom still falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent
which this year was celebrated on March 6.
At times, Mother’s Day has also been a date for
launching political or feminist causes. In 1968
Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King,
used Mother’s Day to host a march in support
of underprivileged women and children. In the
1970s women’s groups also used the holiday as
a time to highlight the need for equal rights and
access to childcare.
Perspicacious readers may have noticed that
most languages seem to have a word for Mother
that is either ‘mama’, or has a nasal sound like ‘nana’:
Arabic ahm, Chechen nana, Greek mana, and
Quechua mama. The reason for this was discerned
by pioneering Russian-American linguist Roman
Jakobson. The easiest vowel sound for babies
to utter is ‘ah’ because it can be made without
doing anything with the tongue or lips. And when
babies close their lips, as is done in nursing, this
transforms the ‘ah’ sounds into ‘mahs.’ Of course
the baby isn’t really speaking, but it sounds to
adults as if the baby is addressing someone, most
likely the Mother. Naturally, Mom takes ‘mama’
as meaning her, and when speaking to her baby
refers to herself as ‘mama.’
As Mother’s Day is now celebrated in over forty
countries, let me wish all Mothers a joyous day on
Sunday, May 8, wherever they may dwell.
Howard’s latest book Wordplay: Arranged and
Deranged Wit will be launched at Crowley Arts
Centre, 5325 Crowley, May 24. Join Howard
between 6 and 8:30 for refreshments.