The true meaning of Mother’s Day

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Mother’s Day is a time to celebrate Mom. These days, pampered luxuries such as day spas and getaway trips are fast becoming popular gifts. Still, the most cherished present, according to several holiday websites, is to honor hard-working moms as “Queen for a Day,” complete with breakfast in bed, homemade cards, flowers and family gatherings (where Mom doesn’t have to cook!).

Mother’s Day may also be the most commercialized of our popular holidays, but I hear few complaints about the loss of its original meaning compared to, say, Christmas. Perhaps its secular nature makes it less sacred than religious holidays and not a matter of much concern. A more likely reason is that the day’s true origins are unknown to most of us, obscured by its “Hallmark” image.

Beyond the “honor thy father and mother” of the Bible, the earliest known tributes to mothers were celebrations by the Greeks and Romans. The first Christian festivals celebrated Mary the Mother of Christ, and were later expanded in England to honor all mothers as part of Mothering Sunday on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

The holiday’s observance in the United States has more social and political origins that date back to 1858, when an activist named Anna Reeves Jarvis organized Mothers’ Works Days to improve the living conditions in poor Appalachian communities. Then, in the wake of the Civil War, Julia Ward Howe called for a Mother’s Day for Peace with a proclamation summoning mothers everywhere to work to abolish all war.

Having directly witnessed the devastating effects of a war that had earlier inspired her to pen the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Howe proclaimed: “Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

For more than a quarter century, the June 2 celebration of Mother’s Day for Peace reflected the special responsibility mothers felt for protecting their husbands and sons from the brutality of war, and for promoting a more civilized means of settling national and international differences. Howe wrote: “In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed to promote the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”

Carrying on her mother’s work, Anna Jarvis’ daughter (also named Anna) lobbied Presidents Taft and Roosevelt for a day dedicated to mothers. But by the time President Woodrow Wilson signed a joint resolution in 1914 designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, the holiday’s original message of peace was taking a back seat to more commercial interests.

At a church service celebrating the life of her mother in 1908, Anna Jarvis gave out white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower. She would later campaign against florists who sold carnations on Mother’s Day for the “outrageous” price of one dollar apiece. She feared that they would “undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.”

From time to time since then, various groups and individuals have sought to organize Mother’s Day as a call to renewed political activism on behalf of “women’s issues” of all kinds. Unintentionally, the present realities of war have come closest to inspiring a response of the kind Julia Ward Howe sought in her original proclamation. The U.S. Army’s failure over the past year to meet recruiting goals is partially due to mothers’ refusal to let their sons and daughters enlist in the dubious enterprise of war. You may have noticed that the Army’s latest recruitment ads are directed not at young men and women, but at parents.

I’ll celebrate Mother’s Day as usual this year with my mother and my wife in some typical ways. However, the most significant gift I can give them, and our three boys, is a reminder of the true meaning of Mother’s Day as a call to peace.

Larry Dunn is a faculty member at Fresno Pacific University’s Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies.

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