Mother's Day 2021: How Anna Jarvis helped us celebrate moms before turning her back on commercialized holiday

Jarvis, who fought to establish Mother's Day as a holiday in the American calendar in honor of her own mom, became disgusted by florists and card companies cashing in on the holiday


                            Mother's Day 2021: How Anna Jarvis helped us celebrate moms before turning her back on commercialized holiday
Anna Jarvis completely disowned Mother's Day by the time of her death because it became too commercialized (Getty Images)
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It's that time of the year where moms are about to be celebrated universally for all they do for their children. Falling on Sunday, May 9 in 2021, this Mother's Day will see lots of families reunited after a socially distanced holiday in 2020. But the story of how Mother's Day became an official holiday in the US calendar, is just as bittersweet.

In the latter half of her illustrious career, American activist Anna Jarvis spent most of her days fighting to get Mother's Day taken off the annual holiday calendar. But what many don't remember is that the entire concept of celebrating mothers was kickstarted by Jarvis herself, back in 1908. Through persistence and stubborn determination, Jarvis was able to turn Mother's Day into an official US holiday in 1914.

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It started with Jarvis's mother initiating a 'Mother's Day Local Club' where she would teach local women how to properly take care of their children. And even though Jarvis fought equally hard in denouncing the commercialized holiday that Mother's Day later became, the story of how she created a day to gift moms for everything they are and do for us is all kinds of wonderful.

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Origins of Mother's Day

Typically the dates and celebrations for Mother’s Day vary around the world, but the tradition remains the same - presenting moms with flowers, cards, and other gifts. The concept of Mother's Day can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who celebrated mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele through festivals in their honor.

Later, the early Christian festival known as 'Mothering Sunday' became the closest thing to what society calls Mother's Day today. The idea was to celebrate the fourth Sunday in Lent where the faithful would return to their 'mother church' for a special service, and over time, the tradition turned more secular as children started gifting their mothers with flowers and other tokens of appreciation as well.

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This was a fading custom before Jarvis picked it up and popularized it in America in the 1930s and 40s, but she wasn't the mastermind behind the operation. The original credit for starting the 'Mother's Day Work Clubs' goes to Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia, who also organized the 'Mother's Friendship Day' in 1868, where mothers from all walks of life gathered together with former Union and Confederate soldiers to promote reconciliation amidst the American Civil War.

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Ann Reeves' efforts were carried on by her daughter Anna, who pioneered celebrating a day to honor the sacrifices mothers made for their children, following the 1905 death of her own mother. 

This photograph of Anna Jarvis was made before she lost her eyesight. When her mother died on May 23, 1905, Jarvis worked untiringly to have the second Sunday in May set aside each year as a day of honor to the mothers of the nation (Getty Images)

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Anna Jarvis's fight to turn Mother's Day into a Holiday

Jarvis's perseverance to get Mother's Day officiated began with gaining financial backing from a Philadelphia department store owner called John Wanamaker. Through his help, Jarvis organized the first official Mother Day celebration in May 1908, at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. People flocked in thousands to attend a Mother’s Day event in one of Wanamaker’s retail stores in Philadelphia - something that further strengthened Jarvis's resolve to see the holiday added to the national calendar.

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Jarvis then turned to pen letters to prominent politicians and campaign to newspapers arguing how American holidays were biased towards male achievements. As she urged people in power to adopt a day honoring mothers, by 1912, more and more states, towns, and churches started adopting the holiday. Soon Jarvis managed to establish the Mother’s Day International Association to promote the cause. Her labor paid off a few years later in 1914 when the then-president Woodrow Wilson signed a measure that officiated the second Sunday in May as the official Mother’s Day holiday.

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People mingle in close proximity to one another as businesses in the flower district in Skid Row reopen in time for Mother's Day on May 8, 2020 in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

Why Jarvis turned against Mother's Day

Jarvis's vision of personal celebration of the bond between a mother and child was tainted by businesses commercializing the holiday later on. She had thought of celebrations where one would wear a carnation and visit their mother or attend a church service - not the monetary benefits florists and card companies would churn from the holiday.

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So she began denouncing the holiday altogether by 1920, urging people to not buy flowers even though she had once worked with florists to popularize the holiday. From open campaigns against profiteers to speaking out against them and launching countless lawsuits against people commercializing the day - Jarvis ended up spending most of her personal wealth in legal fees in this pursuit.

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In her later life, Jarvis was almost blind and deaf, as she rested in a West Chester Sanitarium. When she died in 1948, Jarvis had completely disowned the holiday, and also lobbied the government to remove it from the American calendar.