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The Mother of Mother's Day

Celebrating mothers is not exclusively an American practice. Mothers are celebrated around the world (and on different days) with a wide range of festivals and traditions. Many of these celebrations also predate America’s Mother’s Day holiday. The United Kingdom, for instance, has been celebrating "Mothering Sunday" on the fourth Sunday of Lent since the 16th century. In ancient Rome, the mother goddess Cybele was also celebrated during Hilaria festivals.

The origins of Mother's Day in the United States began in the 19th century, but it would take the determination of a daughter to see her mother's prayer for a celebration of the power of a mother’s love to become a national holiday.

Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis (1832-1905)

Ann Marie Reeves was born in Culpeper, Virginia on 30 September 1832, the daughter of Josiah Washington and Nancy (née Kemper) Reeves.

Her family moved to Philippi, Barbour County, (West) Virginia when her father, a Methodist minister, was transferred to a church in that town. In 1850, she married Granville Jarvis, the son of a Baptist minister, who became a successful merchant in nearby Taylor County. Two years later, in 1852, the couple moved to Webster, where Granville established a mercantile business.

The Jarvis family, like many families during the mid-1800s, experienced frequent tragedy and loss. Ann Marie gave birth to between eleven and thirteen children over the course of seventeen years. Only four survived to adulthood. The others died of diseases such as measles, typhoid fever, and diphtheria, epidemics of which were common in Appalachian communities in Taylor County. These losses inspired Ann Marie to take action to help her community combat childhood diseases and unsanitary conditions.

She was a dynamic woman who saw needs in her community and found ways to meet them. In 1858, while pregnant with her sixth child, Anne Marie began Mothers' Day Work Clubs in the towns of Grafton, Pruntytown, Philippi, Fetterman and Webster to improve health and sanitary conditions.

Her clubs sought to provide assistance and education to families in order to reduce disease and infant mortality. They raised money to buy medicine and to hire women to work in families where the mother suffered from tuberculosis or other health problems. They developed programs to inspect milk long before there were state requirements. Club members visited households to educate mothers and their families about improving sanitation and overall health. The clubs benefited from the advice of Jarvis' brother, James Reeves, a physician who was known for his work in the typhoid fever epidemics in northwestern Virginia.

During the Civil War, sentiment in western Virginia was sharply divided between north and south. In 1863, the western part of the state broke away from Virginia and formed the new state of West Virginia, which was loyal to the Union. It became the location of some of the first conflicts of the Civil War. Ann Marie's Mothers' Day Work Clubs altered their mission to meet the changing demands brought about by war. She urged the clubs to declare neutrality and to provide aid to both Confederate and Union soldiers. Jarvis illustrated her resolve to remain neutral and aid both sides by refusing to support a proposed division of the Methodist Church into a northern and southern branch. Additionally, she reportedly offered a lone prayer for Thornsbury Bailey Brown, the first Union soldier killed by a Confederate in the area, when others refused. Under her guidance, the clubs fed and clothed soldiers from both sides who were stationed in the area. When typhoid fever and measles broke out in the military camps, Ann Marie and her club members nursed the suffering soldiers from both sides at the request of a commander.

Her efforts to keep the community together continued after the Civil War. Public officials seeking ways to eliminate post-war strife called on Jarvis to help. She and her club members planned a "Mothers Friendship Day" for soldiers from both sides and their families at the Taylor County Courthouse in Pruntytown to help the healing process. Despite threats of violence, Ann Marie successfully staged the event in 1868. She shared with the veterans a message of unity and reconciliation. Bands played "Dixie" and the "Star Spangled Banner." The event ended with everyone, north and south, joining together to sing "Auld Lang Syne." This effective and emotional event reduced many to tears. It showed the community that old animosities were destructive and must end. The event was a big success and came to be organized annually for several years to promote peace and friendship.

Throughout her life, Ann Marie taught Sunday School and was very involved with the Methodist church. She taught Sunday school classes and served as superintendent of the Primary Sunday School Department at the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church for twenty-five years. She was also a popular speaker and often lectured on subjects ranging from religion, public health, and literature for audiences at local churches and organizations. Her lectures included, "Literature as a Source of Culture and Refinement," "Great Mothers of the Bible,” Great Value of Hygiene for Women and Children,” and "The Importance of Supervised Recreational Centers for Boys and Girls.”

After the death of her husband in 1902, Ann Marie moved with her daughters, Anna and Lillie, to Philadelphia to live with her son, Claude. She died at the age of 72 on 9 May 1905 and was interred in the West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Anna Jarvis (1864-1948)

Anna Jarvis was born in Webster, Taylor County, West Virginia, on 1 May 1864. She was the ninth of eleven children born to Ann Marie and Granville Jarvis. In 1881, she enrolled at the Augusta Female Academy in Staunton, Virginia, now Mary Baldwin College. After finishing her academics, Anna returned to Grafton, WV and was a school teacher for seven years.

Anna got the inspiration of celebrating Mothers Day quite early in life. It happened one day when Anna was 12 years old. To conclude the lesson on "Mothers of the Bible", her mother said a small prayer:

"I hope that someone, sometime will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it."

Anna never forgot this prayer and at her Mothers graveside service, she recalled her mother's words and said, " the grace of God, you shall have that Mothers Day."

She became all the more serious in her resolution when she found that adult children in the US were negligent in their behavior towards there parents. She began an aggressive campaign to establish a National Mothers Day in the United States.

To give shape to her resolution, Anna, along with her supporters, began to write hundreds of letters to those holding the positions of power advocate the need for a national Mothers Day, including President William Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt. She used every platform to promote her cause. Though the response was cold initially, she achieved a breakthrough by gaining the support of great merchant and philanthropist, John Wanamaker of Philadelphia. The movement gained a fresh impetus with his support.

By May of 1907, a Mother’s Day service had been arranged on the second Sunday in May at the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where Ann Marie Jarvis had taught. The celebration was attended by about 400 people. That same day a special service was held at the Wannamaker Auditorium in Philadelphia, which could seat no more than a third of the 15,000 people who showed up. Anna had selected the second Sunday in May because it marked the anniversary of her mother’s death and she wanted Mother’s Day to always fall on the Sabbath.

By 1909, the custom had spread to churches forty-five states including Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Mexico and Canada. The Governor of West Virginia proclaimed Mother’s Day in 1912; Pennsylvania’s governor in 1913 did the same.

People also wore white and red Carnations to pay tribute to their mothers, according to the tradition started by Anna Jarvis. Anna chose carnations because they were her mother's favorite flowers. White carnation was her most favorite because it represented the purity of a mother's heart. A white carnation was to be worn to honor deceased mothers, and a red one to honor a living mother.

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson issued a presidential proclamation to officially establish Mother’s Day as a national holiday. President Wilson invited the American public to display flags "on the second Sunday in May as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country."

It is poignant to note that though Anna devoted her life for the establishment of national Mother's Day but in the end she was disappointed at the way thing turned out. She was concerned with reform, not revenue. The holiday quickly became a commercialized opportunity for merchants to sell flowers, candies, and cards.

When the price of carnations rocketed, she released a press release condemning florists: "WHAT WILL YOU DO to rout charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations?" By 1920, she was urging people not to buy flowers at all.

She also commented, "A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment."

The only one not to take advantage of Mother's Day, it seems, was Anna herself. She refused money offered to her by the florist industry. She felt this was detracting from the personal and intimate aspects of the holiday and defied this by starting boycotts, walkouts, and even accused first lady Eleanor Roosevelt of "crafty plotting" by using the day as a means of fundraising.

Anna's attempts to de-commercialize the holiday, of course, were not all that successful. In 2018, the National Restaurant Association found that more than a third of American adults (87 million people) would dine out for Mother’s Day. In 2020, the National Retail Federation estimated that more than $28.1 billion would be spent on Mother’s Day, with the average person spending more than $200 on gifts, cards, flowers, or special outings. More calls are made on Mother's Day than any other day of the year. Reportedly there are approximately 122 million calls are made on the second Sunday of May every year.

She launched countless lawsuits against groups that had used the name “Mother’s Day,” eventually spending most of her personal wealth in legal fees. By the time of her death Anna had disowned the holiday altogether, and even actively lobbied the government to see it removed from the American calendar. One of Anna's final acts, while still living with her sister Lillian, was to go door-to-door in Philadelphia asking for signatures to back an appeal for Mother's Day to be rescinded.

She died of heart failure in a sanitarium on 24 November 1948 at the age of 84, deaf, almost blind, and destitute. She was interred beside her mother in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Whereas Ann Marie Jarvis wanted to celebrate the work done by mothers to improve the lives of others, Anna's perspective was that of a devoted daughter. Her motto for Mother's Day was "For the Best Mother who Ever Lived—Your Mother." This was why the apostrophe had to be singular, not plural. Anna envisioned the holiday as a home-coming, a day to honor your mother, the one woman who dedicated her life to you. She wished for Mother’s Day to remain a “holy day,” to remind us of our neglect of “the mother of quiet grace” who put the needs of her children before her own. She never intended for the observance to become the “burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift-day” that other holidays had become by the early 20th century.

So, while increased spending was not the intent of either Anna or her mother, people around the world continue to shower their mothers with love and affection, and honor their memory in ways that feel right for them, and that is what is most important.



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