Mother’s Day is NOT a Hallmark Holiday (or shouldn’t be!)
Mother’s Day falls on the second Sunday of May every year (in 2021 it’s on May 9th). Lots of people derogatorily refer to it as a “Hallmark Holiday”. A Hallmark Holiday is something that was invented by companies such as Hallmark to sell more goods to consumers by tugging at their heartstrings - crass commercialism at its finest.
In many ways, that’s certainly what it is today. According to the National Retail Federation, 83% of American consumers plan to celebrate Mother’s Day this year, and plan to spend $220.48 on average in celebrating the day. That’s a cool $28.1 billion in the US alone!
In past years (when we didn’t have a raging pandemic), Mother’s Day has also been one the most popular day for dining out – even more than Valentine’s Day! More than one-third of adults go to a restaurant to celebrate, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Hallmark itself reports that Mother’s Day is the third most popular card-sending holiday (after Christmas and Valentine’s Day). Over 113 million cards are exchanged, and it is the second most popular holiday for gift-giving (after Christmas, of course).
It’s hard to be too cynical about spending money on the person you love most in the world, given the state of the economy, and the ravages of Covid-19. Yet, this is probably the best time to take stock of what Mother’s Day means, and how to best acknowledge the debt you owe to that singular person, especially given the year we’ve all had.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Mother’s Day was not actually a Hallmark-invented holiday, but one whose modern-day avatar can be attributed to a single individual - Anna Jarvis. Jarvis spent her life popularizing the holiday and then railing against its overt commercialization. She even went so far as to scold First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise funds for charities.
Intrigued? Read on.
Early History of Mother’s Day
Since the ancient Greeks and Romans, celebrations of mothers and motherhood have been occurring at festivals held in honor of mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele.
Other cultures have also been venerating mothers for centuries, but the early Christian festival known as “Mothering Sunday” is the modern precedent for a day dedicated to the celebration of mothers.
The festival was held on the fourth Sunday in Lent and involved visiting one’s “mother church”, and was celebrated with a special church service and was once very popular in the United Kingdom and Europe.
The tradition became more secular over time, where children present their mothers with flowers and other tokens of appreciation. Mother’s Day is still celebrated on this day in the United Kingdom, but the rest of the world has been subsumed by the popularity of the American Mother’s Day.
The Rise of American Mother’s Day
Interestingly, the origins of the American version of Mother’s Day can be traced back to the efforts of a few specific individuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Ann Reeves Jarvis was a West Virginian peace activist. In the mid-1800’s, she organized “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” to teach young mothers how to safely care for their children. These clubs became a unifying force in a region of the country still divided over the Civil War. She proposed a Mothers’ Friendship Day to promote peace between former Union and Confederate families after the Civil War.
However, it was her daughter, Anna Jarvis, who was most responsible for what we call Mother’s Day today – and who would spend most of the latter part of her life fighting what it had become.
Ann Marie Reeves (left) and her daughter Anna Marie Jarvis (right)
After “Mother Jarvis” (as she was affectionately called) died in 1905, her daughter, Anna, conceived Mother’s Day as a way of memorializing her life, and more broadly, honoring the sacrifices mothers made for their children.
She campaigned vigorously for the idea and bombarded public figures and civic organizations with telegrams, letters, and in-person discussions. She even distributed booklets extolling her idea.
With the help of John Wanamaker, owner of one of the first department stores in the country (anyone remember Wanamaker’s, or am I just too old?), Anna Jarvis organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration on May 10th 1908. The event was held at a church in her hometown of Grafton, West Virigina (the church is now called the International Mother’s Day Shrine!). That same day, thousands of people attended a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s stores in Philadelphia.
Even though the U.S. Congress rejected a proposal to make Mother's Day an official holiday in 1908 (joking that they would also have to proclaim a "Mother-in-law's Day"), virtually all states observed the holiday by 1912. This was largely through the efforts of Anna Jarvis and the Mother’s Day International Association she had established to help promote her cause.
In 1914 her efforts paid off when President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill designating the second Sunday in May as a legal holiday to be called “Mother’s Day”. According to Wilson, the holiday gave everyone a chance to “[publicly express] our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”
The Fall (aka the Commercialization of Mother’s Day)
Mother’s Day became a victim of its own success almost immediately, and its biggest critic was Anna Jarvis.
Anna’s idea of the holiday was a day of personal celebration between mothers and families (the emphasis is mine). Her way of celebrating the day involved wearing a white carnation as a badge and visiting one’s mother or attending church services.
However, it wasn’t long before florists, card companies (ahem, Hallmark, which sent out its first Mother’s Day cards in the early 1920s), and merchants had moved in to capitalize on its popularity.
Although she had previously worked with some of these industries to help make the case for Mother’s Day, she became disgusted with the way the holiday had been commercialized by 1920.
According to a New York Times article from 1923, Anna Jarvis resented that the day she had intended to devote to mothers became “a means of profiteering.” In a cruel twist, many companies latched on to the carnation as the “official” flower of Mother’s Day, and commenced peddling it as the perfect gift to send mothers on that day!
Anna urged people to stop buying flowers, cards, and candies. She organized boycotts, threatened lawsuits, and even attacked First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother's Day to raise funds for charities. In 1925, she crashed a convention of the American War Mothers and was even arrested for disturbing the peace.
By the time of her death in 1948, Anna Jarvis had disowned the holiday altogether and had even actively lobbied the government to see it removed from the American calendar.
It’s a sad parable of a great holiday.
Mother’s Day Today
Much like Christmas today, Mother’s Day has become so much more commercial than it was originally conceived to be. But we can turn back the clock and take the holiday back to its roots.
If there is one silver lining to the massive dislocations and heartache brought about by Covid-19, it is that the global lockdowns have forced us all to rethink and re-evaluate almost everything: how we spend our time, where we spend our money, and what we think is important.
No one is saying you shouldn’t buy gifts or flowers for your mother. However, the gift should represent your love and affection – and should not be a substitute for it. Mother’s Day has always been about acknowledging the outsized impact of that singular person on you and your life. So, ideally, your gift should acknowledge that.
Here are a few basic guidelines for great Mother’s Day gifts:
- Your time: Nothing is more personal and more appreciated than just spending time with your mother. We all lead busy lives and it’s so easy to get lost in the daily humdrum. It’s always nice to take a step back and spend real quality time with your mom. After all, it’s the one thing in this world that is absolutely finite
- Your effort: In addition to time, your effort can also be a great gift. By that, I mean to give her something that clearly required a lot of effort on your part – be it a handmade card, or a personalized book or some other personalized gift, or a very thoughtful day of activities. Whatever it is, it would be something where the effort involved in the gift is clearly apparent.
- Your love: At heart, that’s what Mother’s Day is all about – a day to reciprocate a lifetime of love that your mother has shared with you!
[Editors Note: You could always buy our beautifully illustrated “Your Baby’s Story” personalized book to share with a mother and allow her to relive the memories about the best gift of all!]