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A true history of Mother's Day

  • 08 May 2020
This year we’ll be celebrating a different kind of Mother’s Day: there won’t be any fancy champaigne brunches with all the restaurants closed. Some of us in this COVID-19 crisis won’t even be able to visit our mothers. And many of us are out of work, too skint to buy flowers.

My own mother doesn’t mind. When I was growing up she claimed this calendar day had been invented by Hallmark to sell more cards and she refused to celebrate.

The true origins are more intriguing. Mother’s Day was started by Anna Jarvis in 1908 to honour her own dead mother, who’d looked after injured soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War. Jarvis successfully petitioned President Wilson to make Mother’s Day official on the U.S. calendar in 1914, on the eve of another crisis: the Great War. Other countries soon followed suit.

Jarvis believed the day should be spent in church and wanted children to write letters of gratitude to their mothers.

By the 1920s, however, Mother’s Day in the U.S. had become less spiritual and more commercial. Flower, candy and card companies cashed in on the day.

Jarvis was appalled. ‘A printed card,’ she said, ‘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!’

'Mother’s Day seems a sort of penance, a day to lavish gifts on the mothers in our lives in order to make up for every other day of the year when women do twice the house work as men, while managing the family and holding down a job for less money than her male counterpart.'

And so the woman who started Mother’s Day petitioned to rescind Mother’s day. But it was too late. The flower and card companies were making a mint.

Jarvis was arrested for disturbing the peace while protesting the sale of carnations and by the early 1940s, she was placed in a sanatorium, which was paid for, in part, by people in the flower and card industry. They also paid for her funeral. She died impoverished and alone in November 1948 and was buried next to her mother.

Meanwhile Mother’s Day continued to grow both in the US and around the world.

Ever since I moved to Australia in 2005, I’ve been shocked by the degree in which Mother’s