Why we should celebrate the real origins of Mother's Day

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Across North America, Mother's Day is widely celebrated. Families pay tribute to women's contributions to the family with a nice meal, flowers, jewelry, clothing, even electronics. The National Retailers' Federation estimates that over $16 billion was spent in the U.S. last year to mark the day.

But the day did not begin as a day of consumerism to celebrate mothers' contributions to the home and family; once upon a time it was a day meant to celebrate their contributions to society.

A day rooted in social action

The earliest antecedents to Mother's Day go back to Greek and Roman spring celebrations of maternal goddesses. Its roots in modern times, however, lie in the United States, where the origins of a national Mother's Day can be traced back to the activism of three women.

The first, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, organized women in her area into Mothers' Day Work Clubs in 1858 to improve local health and sanitation conditions. During the American Civil War, they courageously nursed soldiers from both sides.

When the war ended, Ann arranged the first "Mothers Friendship Day" in 1868 to reconcile friends and families torn apart by bitter conflict. Appealing to the common love and respect of one's mother, she encouraged men to wear a floral badge to create a "bond of brotherhood," and to set aside differences. The event was filled with emotional embraces and tears, and several more were subsequently held.

The second woman, Julia Ward Howe, a prominent anti-slavery activist and suffragist, was disgusted by the carnage of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. Inspired by Mothers Friendship Day, Julia issued a "Mothers' Day Proclamation" in 1870, calling on women around the world to form a peace congress. She believed that women were the most deeply impacted by war, and saw mothers as being uniquely invested in stopping the killing of each other's sons. Julia lobbied for years for the recognition of a "Mothers' Day for Peace" to be celebrated on June 2, with little success.

The third woman to play a role in the development of Mother's Day in North America was Jarvis's daughter Anna Jarvis, who, upon her mother's passing in 1905, vowed to realize her mother's dream of a day commemorating the "matchless service rendered to humanity" by mothers.

She started a tradition in 1908 of an annual church service on the second Sunday in May, the anniversary of her mother's death, as a general memorial day for all mothers. Anna also began the tradition of wearing her mother's favourite flower, a carnation, as a simple and inexpensive symbol of love and respect for one's mother -- coloured if she were living, white if not.

Mother's Day goes national... and loses its original meaning

With growing popular support, Anna Jarvis continued her campaign, writing letters to officials asking that Mothers' Day be a national holiday. Her efforts quickly paid off. By 1909, Canada, Mexico and 45 U.S. states were celebrating Mothers' Day. In 1914, it was declared a U.S. national holiday.

But in an interesting - and very political - change, the apostrophe was moved, making it "Mother's Day." It was described as a day to celebrate the individual mother and her work in the home, thus changing the collective nature and meaning of the Mothers' Day for which Ann, Julia and Anna had campaigned so tirelessly.

As the day changed, Anna began a lifelong fight against its commercialization, attacking as "pirates" and "racketeers" florists and others trying to profit from the day's noble intentions. In the 1930s, she was detained by the police for protesting a meeting of the American War Mothers, who were selling carnations to raise money. She even incorporated Mother's Day and threatened to sue anyone who infringed on the patent.

Anna Jarvis spent her last days in a nursing home, penniless after her long struggle. Her bills were paid by her supporters, including (without her knowledge) the American Florists' Exchange.

Mother's Day today

The commercialization of Mother's Day has grown ever more over the past century, to the point that many think that the day was invented by Hallmark. It has the second-highest level of gift-giving of the year's holidays after Christmas, and many restaurants and florists claim it as their busiest day.

Marketers and mainstream media continuously emphasize women's domestic labour, encouraging consumers to thank mothers for their contributions to family and home. While such thanks are well-deserved, an increasing number of civil society groups are reclaiming the day as one to celebrate women's social activism, internationalism and peace as well.

Pacifist organizations have been inspired by Julia Ward Howe's "Mothers' Day Proclamation," and are celebrating the day as a peace holiday. American organizations such as CodePink and Ploughshares Fund have mounted campaigns on Mother's Day to honour and support women's anti-war efforts, raising funds and encouraging creative anti-war demonstrations.

Progressive church congregations across North America commemorate the day's history during Mother's Day services, paying tribute to the mothers in their faith communities and in society. In Canada, international social justice organization Inter Pares has developed a "Feminist Heritage Minute" video and themed e-cards to raise awareness of the day's history, and to raise funds to support women's activism for peace and justice around the world.

More than 150 years after Mother's Day was first celebrated, there are women in every country who are working for safer, healthier, more peaceful communities and societies.

Around the world, women share Ann's dream of reconciling war-torn communities; Julia's vision of an egalitarian society free of forced labour and armed conflict; and Anna's commitment to honouring women's contributions to humanity.

Women continue to be at the heart of progressive movements for change, as well as pillars of their communities. And while Julia's dream of a worldwide women's congress for peace did not come to pass as such, women around the world have been gathering together for decades to build international alliances and common cause.

Through global conferences, in national meetings and networks, and in online and phone relationships, women are increasingly collaborating and supporting each other internationally in their social justice efforts.

This Mother's Day, take back the holiday's original meaning: give a day's tribute to the women in your life by supporting women who -- like Ann, Julia and Anna -- are bringing about generations of change.

Samantha McGavin is Inter Pares' communications director, and the developer of its Mother's Day campaign, takebacktheday.ca

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