The Mother of All Holidays

MD1aMother’s Day—It’s the mother of all holidays. It’s the day set aside to honor the sainted woman who blessed you by helping you to grow to adulthood and cursed you by hoping that you would, one day, have a child just like you. Although Mother’s Day seems like it has always been a fixture of our culture, it actually has only been a national holiday since 1914, which incidentally is the year Mother’s Cookie Company, maker of those delightful pink and white iced Circus Animal Cookies, was founded. But I digress.

Okay. Back to Mother’s Day. Today, we’re going to talk about the woman responsible for the creation of Mother’s Day. And, we’re also going to talk about the woman who tried diligently to put an end to Mother’s Day. As fate would have it, they were the same woman, a lady named Anna Jarvis. Squeee!  Folks, I couldn’t make up this stuff if I tried!

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Anna Jarvis
Anna Jarvis

Make no mistake. Anna Jarvis loved her dear mother, Ann Jarvis. She loved her so much that, in 1906, she made a sacred vow at her mother’s graveside that she would devote her life to establishing a day set aside to honor all mothers—both living and dead. Sacred vows are serious business and the devoted daughter did not forget.

Ann Jarvis, mother of Anna
Ann Jarvis, mother of Anna

The elder Jarvis had been a peace activist, caring for the wounded on both sides of the Civil War. She also formed an organization called the Mothers Day Friendship Club, which offered companionship for women who refused to take sides during the Civil War. Following the war, Ann Jarvis had the idea of holding a huge family day picnic, called Mothers Friendship Day. The goal of the day was for neighbors who had fought on opposite sides to join hands in a sort of “Kumbaya” moment that would dissolve years of conflict, bad memories and resentment.

So, perhaps Anna Jarvis hadn’t been such an out-of- the-box thinker when she made that vow to campaign for a national Mother’s Day. In fact, she remembered her mother praying for someone to establish a day to honor mothers, during a Sunday school lesson in 1876. But, out-of-the-box thinker or not, she was absolutely true to her word.

Hearts and Flowers

St. Andrew's Church
St. Andrew’s Church

On the first anniversary of her mother’s death, Jarvis held a private memorial service at St. Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. The date was May 9, 1907. The location was the same church where her mother had led that Sunday school prayer, so many years earlier.

White carnationsThe following year, Anna Jarvis was unable to return to Grafton, but she arranged to have 500 white carnations delivered to St. Andrew’s. White carnations were chosen because they had been Mother Jarvis’s favorite flower. The flowers weren’t just for mothers in the congregation. They were for everyone who had ever had a mother. Each parishioner wore a fragrant carnation in honor of his or her own mother. That same afternoon, 15,000 people attended a service that Anna Jarvis, the world’s most devoted daughter, had helped to organized in Philadelphia. John Wanamaker, a Philadelphia merchant, took note of the number of people Anna was able to attract, and decided to join her campaign for Mother’s Day.

Yet, Mother’s Day was still not a national holiday. Jarvis’s initial attempts to tug at the heartstrings of politicians were unsuccessful. But Anna Jarvis would not be deterred! She quit her job and began a full-time letter writing campaign to politicians, ministers, merchants and women’s clubs.MD5

By 1914, the Mother’s Day movement gained the backing of the World’s Sunday School Association. And that same year, President Woodrow Wilson became a believer and signed the proclamation declaring the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day. Finally, Anna Jarvis could rest easy, knowing that she had fulfilled her promise. . . or maybe not.

Nip It In the Bud!

Anna Jarvis
Anna Jarvis

It seems that Jarvis had some very specific ideas on what Mother’s Day should be like. VERY specific! It was supposed to be a day to write your mother a handwritten letter and to wear a white carnation on your lapel. It most assuredly was NOT supposed to be a day to purchase a (((gasp))) printed greeting card, a flower arrangement, or a box of candy! Dagnabbit! Why weren’t people playing by the rules? Jarvis was appalled.

MD6Folks, I mean the commercialism of Mother’s Day was eating her up inside. When florists began advertising for the holiday, Anna Jarvis was so angry she couldn’t see straight. Florists had taken her idea of wearing white carnations and they ran away with it. They began promoting the idea of wearing colorful flowers to honor living mothers and white flowers for deceased mothers. What part of WHITE carnations did they not understand???!?

Hallmark Mother's Day card from the 1920's - HO from Hallmark CardsBy 1920, Anna was firmly convinced that the entire holiday had gone to hell in a handbasket. The woman who had fought so hard for Mother’s Day to be recognized, well . . .  she got a little nasty about the people who weren’t celebrating the way she had envisioned. She began a new campaign. This one was focused on getting people to STOP buying things for their mothers on Mother’s Day! Honestly, just because the woman endured 17 hours of backbreaking labor in the delivery room to bring you into the world is no reason to stoop to buying a Hallmark card!

MD8She called the greeting card industry, florists and candy makers, “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.” If only she had learned to not bottle up her feelings!

When she unsuccessfully attempted to trademark the white carnation, together with the words, “Mother’s Day,” FTD offered her a commission on the sales of Mother’s Day carnations. She flatly refused their proposition. Instead, she began giving out buttons featuring white carnations. Ha! That would show those bloodsucking florists!

MD9Jarvis never did profit from Mother’s Day. And, she didn’t save her harsh words for profiteering businesses only. She also fought against charities that used Mother’s Day for fundraising. Curse you, Eleanor Roosevelt, for having the unmitigated gall to raise money to lower maternal and infant mortality rates. Yes, I said, “CURSE YOU!”

Despite her cheery outlook on life, Anna Jarvis’s final years were quite sad. She became a recluse and a hoarder and ultimately lived out her remaining years in a mental institution.  What she never knew was that her expenses were paid, in part, by a group of florists. She died in November of 1948. Anna Jarvis had no children.

Put Them All Together…

MD10In 1914, one year after Mother’s Day became a National Holiday, Howard Johnson the lyricist (not to be confused with Howard Johnson the motel mogul) wrote the words to the song “M-O-T-H-E-R, A Word That Means the World to Me.” I leave you with the lyrics, and a wonderful video recording of Henry Burr singing that song in 1916. I’m not positive, but something tells me that Anna Jarvis probably hated that song and felt that music had no part in celebrating Mother’s Day.

M Is for the Many things she gave me,

O Means only that she’s growing Old.

T Is for the Tears she shed to save me,

H Is for her Heart of purest gold.

E Is for her Eyes with love light shining,

R Means Right and right she’ll always be.

Put them all together, they spell MOTHER.

A word that means the world to me.

Happy Mother’s Day, all y’all!

Anita Lequoia

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