History of Mother’s Day

Bill Petro
4 min readMay 11, 2018


The person most active initially in opposing the celebration of Mother’s Day is the very person who started this holiday in the US. How did that happen?

Anna Jarvis’ mother died in 1905 and in her honor, Anna held a memorial in 1908 in Grafton, West Virginia. She continued to campaign for national recognition of this day for all mothers through the assistance of John Wanamaker and the efforts of Bethany Temple Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. The first state to recognize Mother’s Day was her own West Virginia in 1910. President Woodrow Wilsonproclaimed the “second Sunday in June” as Mother’s Day in 1914. The spelling was significant: Anna Jarvis did not spell it “Mothers’ Day” because she intended, as she said it should “be singular possessive, for each family to honor its mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers of the world.” Nevertheless, in more modern times both “Mothers’ Day” and “Mother’s Day” appear as names for this holiday.


Although there had been previous efforts to start a mother’s day associated with pacifistic mothers during the American Civil War, some organized by Anna’s mother, it was not until the efforts of Anna Jarvis in the early 20th century that this celebration caught on widely. Carnations, flying of the American flag, and church-going are associated with this holiday. White carnations were the favorite flower of Anna Jarvis’ mother and 500 of them were delivered at the first celebration in 1908 by Anna Jarvis. Churches would traditionally distribute white carnations to mothers on this day, but due to the shortage of white carnations, florists developed the idea of a red carnation if one’s mother was living, white if not. This was promoted widely and is now a common part of the celebration.

Ancient History


While the American history of this holiday is only a century old, outside the US countries have adopted this holiday to match previous secular or sacred holidays associated with mothering. One example from Greek antiquities is told in Hesiod‘s Theogony(birth of the gods). The primordial earth deity Gaia and the Titan of the sky Uranus — progenitors of the Titans — had the daughter Rhea.

Rhea was sister and wife of the Titan Cronus (time) and was the mother of the Olympian gods and goddesses: Zeus, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, Demeter, and Hestia. The mother cult was initially celebrated in Crete, where myth suggests Rhea gave birth to Zeus to hide him from Cronus, who was swallowing his children, to prevent them overthrowing him as he himself did his father Uranus.


Ancient Romans celebrated Magna Mater or “Great Mother” in honor of Cybele, a mother goddess and likely equivalent of the Greek Rhea, around March 22–25, but the celebrations were notorious enough that followers of Cybele were later banished from Rome.

In the pre-Christian British Isles and Celtic Europe, the goddess Brigid, and later her successor St. Brigid, were honored with a spring Mother’s Day, connected with the “first milk of the ewes.”

Christian traditions

During Christian times in the UK and parts of Europe on the fourth Sunday in Lent people would return to their local “mother church” for a special service before Easter, known as Mothering Sunday. In some Catholic and Orthodox countries, it is associated with St. Mary and is tied to the day that she presented her son Jesus Christ in the Temple of Jerusalem (February 2). In Eastern Europe, it is sometimes associated with International Women’s Day.


So, why did Anna Jarvis, who remained unmarried and childless all her life, oppose the very holiday that she had started to honor her mother? Within nine years of the first official Mother’s Day in the US, it had become so commercialized that she spent the remainder of her life and wealth fighting what she believed was an abuse of the celebration of Mother’s Day. In 1948 she was arrested for protesting against this commercialization saying she “wished she would have never started the day because it became so out of control.”

Nevertheless, Mother’s Day in the US is the second largest consumer spending holiday, after the Winter holidays, expected to be over $23 billion this year, with an average shopper spend of $186 this year:

  • The most popular day to eat out in the US: $55 individual spend
  • A huge revenue generator for American jewelers
  • A boon to American florists: $2.6 billion
  • A specialist gift day including clothes and accessories: $1.5 billion
  • The mother of all greeting cards holiday: $68 million

We don’t see this kind of spending for Father’s Day.

How do you celebrate Mother’s Day?

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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Bill Petro

Writer, technologist, historian. Former Silicon Valley tech exec. Author of fascinating articles on history, tech, pop culture, & travel. https://billpetro.com