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The History of Mother's Day

On May 8th, tiny breakfast-in-bed makers and last-minute Hallmark customers across the U.S. will observe the ninety-eighth official national celebration of Mother’s Day. Most of us are now hip to the commercial, agenda-bolstering holiday; the supposedly meaningful family occasion is the potpourri-scented cash cow that comes to pasture for florists and greeting-card companies every May. But no one was more horrified by the oft-misplaced point of Mother’s Day than the woman who created it.

When Anna Jarvis’ mother died on the second Sunday of May in 1905, she was devastated. Mrs. Jarvis had devoted much of her adult life to educating other mothers about health and sanitation and in 1868 held the first Mother’s Friendship Day to unite families broken apart by the Civil War. Anna vowed to honor her mother’s memory by turning Mother’s Day into a national holiday.

Showing the same determination that marked her mother’s service work, the well-educated Anna dispatched a flotilla of letters to ministers and politicians around the country, eventually buying the house next door just to hold her correspondence. And in 1914, the pertinacious Miss Jarvis saw President Woodrow Wilson decree the second Sunday of every May the United States’ official Mother’s Day.

But quickly thereafter, Anna Jarvis became outraged by the liberties people were taking with her holiday – and as we’ve already established, Miss Jarvis was nothing if not single-minded. Florists began up-charging for carnations, so Jarvis organized a boycott. When the American War Mothers held their own “Mothers’ Day” celebration in 1932, horrifically misplacing the apostrophe (Jarvis, who had no children herself, had decreed in 1908 that the holiday should not ever become a pluralistic “Mothers’ Day,” in which we’d all honor all mothers, but always remain “Mother’s Day,” on which each of us would honor only our own), Miss Jarvis was charged with disorderly conduct for bum-rushing the event. And when some infidels took it upon themselves to add a “happy” to the sentiment – as in “Happy Mother’s Day!” – Miss Jarvis threatened them with legal action. As far as Anna Jarvis was concerned, there was nothing “happy” about what had happened to a day intended for personal remembrance, and so she spent the rest of her life attempting to dismantle the institution she had created.

Miss Jarvis’s idea of Mother’s Day allowed for no teddy bears or bouquets, no heart-shaped assorted confections, nothing at all that could be bought. She was particularly irked by those sons of the Roaring Twenties who thought it sufficient to hand the woman who gave them life a greeting card with a pre-printed sentiment. Miss Jarvis believed in writing a tenderhearted letter to mom your own doggone self. But were she alive today, Miss Jarvis might really lose heart. Today, those same mothers would be lucky to get a heartfelt text: “thnkn of u ma!!”

And pre-packaged, tweet-length remembrances aren’t the only offense this holiday holds. When the celebration is more elaborate, Mother’s Day often becomes more trouble for the ostensible honoree than it’s worth. Exhibit A: the kids cupping their hands under the chocolate fountain at my hometown hotel’s Mother’s Day Brunch. What kind of Mother’s Day “gift” are three tiny button-downs smeared with melted semisweet morsels? In my childhood home, the day was always slightly stressful, my father regularly barking at my mother, “Sit down! You’re not supposed to be doing anything!” although she had in fact just made the eight of us dinner, just as she did every other night of the year. All of us kids loading the dishwasher for one night was hardly sufficient recompense, especially considering she’d have to unload and reload the whole thing as soon as we ran off. But as a kid, I thought I deserved a gold medal for being so unbelievably selfless and honorable.

Sometimes it almost seems like the purpose of Mother’s Day is to give a whole family a guilt-free year of mom-as-doormat in exchange for one morning of runny eggs and burnt toast. How does a card with the message, “You are the Mother of My Children, Dearest Wife” embossed in glitter make up for dirty socks on the floor year round?

Anna Jarvis tried to save us from the annual ritual she set in motion. Her last-ditch effort to finish off her personal Frankenstein was in 1943, when she went door-to-door with a petition to have Mother’s Day rescinded. (She apparently did not get the required number of signatures.) She died in 1948, blind, almost deaf, nearly penniless, and as her New York Times obituary put it, a “bitter opponent of the encroachment of commercialism into the observance.” But while Miss Jarvis may have lost the battle against Mother’s Day in her lifetime, her story lives on, mainly because she had a point. We shouldn’t let our families get off so easily: Mother’s Day alone isn’t enough of a thank you for twelve months of taking everything we do for granted. This year, I’m not letting my husband and kids get away with it – at least, not without a nice handwritten letter.

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