The Origins of Mother’s Day in the U.S. and México

Mexico – Michel #4045 (2017)

In México, Día de las Madres (Mother’s Day), is held every year on May 10. The first official Mothers’ Day celebration in México was held on May 10, 1922, and today the date is also Mother’s Day in El Salvador and Guatemala. Another 146 countries including the United States honor their mothers on the second Sunday in May which in 2019 occurs on May 12 and on May 10 in 2020.  In total, more than 190 nations and territories have an official celebration honoring the mother of the family, as well as motherhood, maternal bonds, and the influence of mothers in society. It is celebrated on various days in many parts of the world, most commonly in the months of March or May. It complements similar celebrations honoring family members, such as Father’s Day, Siblings Day, and Grandparents Day.

The modern Mother’s day began in the United States, at the initiative of Anna Jarvis in the early 20th century. This is not (directly) related to the many traditional celebrations of mothers and motherhood that have existed throughout the world over thousands of years, such as the Greek cult to Cybele, the Roman festival of Hilaria, or the Christian Mothering Sunday celebration (originally a commemoration of Mother Church, not motherhood). However, in some countries, Mother’s Day is still synonymous with these older traditions.

The U.S.-derived modern version of Mother’s Day has been criticized for having become too commercialized. Founder Jarvis herself regretted this commercialism and expressed views on how that was never her intention.

International Mothers Day Shrine in w:Grafton, West Virginia. Photo taken by Brian M. Powell on May 15, 2009. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license..

The modern holiday in the U.S. was first celebrated in 1908, when Jarvis held a memorial for her mother at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. This church now holds the International Mother’s Day Shrine. Her campaign to make Mother’s Day a recognized holiday in the United States began in 1905, the year her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, died. Ann Jarvis had been a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War, and created Mother’s Day Work Clubs to address public health issues. Anna Jarvis wanted to honor her mother by continuing the work she started and to set aside a day to honor all mothers because she believed a mother is “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world”.

In 1908, the U.S. Congress rejected a proposal to make Mother’s Day an official holiday, joking that they would also have to proclaim a “Mother-in-law’s Day”. However, owing to the efforts of Jarvis, by 1911 all U.S. states observed the holiday, with some of them officially recognizing Mother’s Day as a local holiday (the first being West Virginia, Jarvis’ home state, in 1910).

In 1912 Jarvis trademarked the phrase “Second Sunday in May, Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis, Founder”, and created the Mother’s Day International Association. She specifically noted that “Mother’s” should “be a singular possessive, for each family to honor its own mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world.”

President Woodrow Wilson’s Mother’s Day Proclamation of May 9, 1914 (Presidential Proclamation 1268).. From the National Archives and Records Administration – Archives I Reference Section, Textual Archives Services Division (NWCT1R), National Archives Building, Washington, DC. Control Number: NWCTB-11-PRDOCPI159E23-PP1268.

In 1914, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation designated Mother’s Day as a national holiday to honor mothers held on the second Sunday in May. In his proclamation, Wilson used the spelling as set by Anna Jarvis. This spelling was also used by the U.S. Congress in relevant bills and by later U.S. presidents in their proclamations concerning Mother’s Day.

Although Jarvis was successful in founding Mother’s Day, she became resentful of the commercialization of the holiday. By the early 1920s, Hallmark Cards and other companies had started selling Mother’s Day cards. Jarvis believed that the companies had misinterpreted and exploited the idea of Mother’s Day, and that the emphasis of the holiday was on sentiment, not profit. As a result, she organized boycotts of Mother’s Day, and threatened to issue lawsuits against the companies involved. Jarvis argued that people should appreciate and honor their mothers through handwritten letters expressing their love and gratitude, instead of buying gifts and pre-made cards. Jarvis protested at a candy makers’ convention in Philadelphia in 1923, and at a meeting of American War Mothers in 1925. By this time, carnations had become associated with Mother’s Day, and the selling of carnations by the American War Mothers to raise money angered Jarvis, who was arrested for disturbing the peace.

México – Scott #1649 (1990)

In México, mothers have been considered the building force of society since pre-Columbian times. They were the first teachers and protectors, thus the many representation of goddesses in pre-Hispanic religions. Around her, the destiny of the family, and of the social organization, was formed, distributed and decided. Pre-Columbian men ruled, but the women were the mediators.  Any offense to a mother in pre-Hispanic times was considered an unforgivable affront.

The role of mothers in Aztec society was very important, since it was they who were in charge of teaching everything to their children including fundamental values ​​and religion. Girls, for example, were taught to be discreet, not look directly to the eyes and always keep their heads down.

In general, women in the pre-Columbian era never occupied important political positions, except for the Maya culture, where in some occasions they could occupy lesser positions. In Palenque it is known that of its 12 rulers two were women, Kanal Ikal that reigned from 583 to 604 d.C. And Zac-Kuk, who ruled from 612 to 640 d.C..

When a woman died during childbirth she was considered a “warrior” and, consequently, a person worthy of admiration and veneration.

Some residents of northern México, influenced by their neighbor the United States, began to observe a Mother’s Day holiday in the early part of the 20th century. However, it took an editorial in a Mexico City newspaper, combined with a widespread media campaign and support from the Catholic Church, to bring the observance into full flower.

México – Scott #2675 (2010)

By the 1920s, some people in México were becoming concerned that women were being diverted from what many saw as their primary role — childbearing. Information on contraception was becoming more accessible, and women were beginning to assert their rights in politics and the professional world. In an effort to promote motherhood, the Mexican women’s magazine, El Hogar, joined forces with La Asociation de las Damas Catolicas (the Association of Catholic Ladies) to oppose what they saw as a threat to traditional values. Rafael Alducin, editor of the Mexico City newspaper El Excélsior, joined the fight and organized the first official celebration of Mother’s Day in Mexico on May 10, 1922.

Alducin wrote and published an editorial that affirmed the ties between motherhood and México’s traditional values. The conservative government tried to use the holiday to promote a more conservative role for mothers in families, but that perspective was criticized by the socialists as promoting an unrealistic image of a woman who was not good for much more than breeding.

México – Michel #3837 (2014)

Mother’s Day gained almost immediate acceptance in México. El Hogar announced a beautiful baby photo contest in conjunction with the first Mother’s Day, and it was wildly successful.

In the mid-1930s, the leftist government of Lázaro Cárdenas promoted the holiday as a “patriotic festival”. The Cárdenas government tried to use the holiday as a vehicle for various efforts: to stress the importance of families as the basis for national development; to benefit from the loyalty that Mexicans felt towards their mothers; to introduce new morals to Mexican women; and to reduce the influence that the church and the Catholic right exerted over women. The government sponsored the holiday in the schools. However, ignoring the strict guidelines from the government, theatre plays were filled with religious icons and themes. Consequently, the “national celebrations” became “religious fiestas” despite the efforts of the government.

The Archbishop of México gave his official sanction to the holiday, and another supporter publicly declared that “the family is a sacred social unit.” Soon, images of the Madonna and Child adorned Mother’s Day cards and posters. This was especially significant, because México’s patron is the Lady of Guadalupe, so the holiday automatically gained religious and patriotic meaning.

Soledad Orozco García, the wife of President Manuel Ávila Camacho, promoted the holiday during the 1940s, resulting in an important state-sponsored celebration. The 1942 celebration lasted a full week and included an announcement that all women could reclaim their pawned sewing machines from the Monte de Piedad at no cost.

Due to Orozco’s promotion, the Catholic National Synarchist Union (UNS) took heed of the holiday around 1941. Shop-owner members of the Party of the Mexican Revolution (now the Institutional Revolutionary Party) observed a custom allowing women from humble classes to pick a free Mother’s Day gift from a shop to bring home to their families. The Synarchists worried that this promoted both materialism and the idleness of lower classes, and in turn, reinforced the systemic social problems of the country. Currently this holiday practice is viewed as very conservative, but the 1940s’ UNS saw Mother’s Day as part of the larger debate on the modernization that was happening at the time. This economic modernization was inspired by U.S. models and was sponsored by the state. The fact that the holiday was originally imported from the U.S. was seen as evidence of an attempt at imposing capitalism and materialism in Mexican society.

México – Michel #3986 (2016)

The UNS and the clergy of the city of León interpreted the government’s actions as an effort to secularize the holiday and to promote a more active role for women in society. They concluded that the government’s long-term goal was to cause women to abandon their traditional roles at home in order to spiritually weaken men. They also saw the holiday as an attempt to secularize the cult to the Virgin Mary, inside a larger effort to dechristianize several holidays. The government sought to counter these claims by organizing widespread masses and asking religious women to assist with the state-sponsored events in order to “depaganize” them. The clergy preferred to promote the July 2 celebration of the Santísima Virgen de la Luz, the patron of León, Guanajuato, in replacement of Mother’s Day. In 1942, at the same time as Soledad’s greatest celebration of Mother’s Day, the clergy organized the 210th celebration of the Virgin Mary with a large parade in León.

There is a consensus among scholars that the Mexican government abandoned its revolutionary initiatives during the 1940s, including its efforts to influence Mother’s Day. The holiday has grown in acceptance, and now almost every Mexican family celebrates.

The sound of music begins Mother’s Day in many Mexican homes  in which the custom is to serenade the matriarch of the household with the traditional song “Las Mañanitas” in the morning, either a cappella or accompanied by a trio or mariachi band hired by those who can afford to. The family then attends church for a special mass followed by a community breakfast usually prepared by the children. In many families, the children present a program for their mother singing songs or performing a brief skit. If May 10 falls on a weekday, many schools will sponsor a show for their students’ mothers which may include jokes and songs. Just as in the United States, a Mother’s Day lunch or dinner in a nice restaurant is often a part of the family’s celebration.

Mother’s Day celebrations are held throughout the world. In most countries, Mother’s Day is an observance derived from the holiday as it has evolved in the United States, promoted by companies who saw benefit in making it popular. Some existing celebrations honoring motherhood later adopted several external characteristics from the U.S. holiday, such as giving carnations and other presents to one’s mother.

As adopted by other countries and cultures, the holiday has different meanings, is associated with different events (religious, historical or legendary), and is celebrated on different dates. In some countries, the date adopted is one significant to the majority religion, such as Virgin Mary Day in Catholic countries. Other countries selected a date with historical significance. For example, Bolivia’s Mother’s Day is a fixed date, remembering of a battle in which women participated to defend their children. Some ex-socialist countries, such as Russia, celebrated International Women’s Day instead of Mother’s Day or simply celebrate both holidays, which is the custom in Ukraine. Kyrgyzstan has recently introduced Mother’s Day, International Women’s Day holds a higher status.

Postcard bearing a Mother’s Day pictorial postmark from Iglau in the German occupied territory of Bohemia and Moravia on May 13, 1941. Image sourced from active eBay auction.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the holiday is strongly associated with revering the Virgin Mary. In some Catholic homes, families have a special shrine devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In many Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, a special prayer service is held in honor of the Theotokos Virgin Mary.

In Islam there is no concept of Mother’s Day, but the Quran teaches that children should give priority to loving their mother over their father. Mother’s Day in most Arab countries is celebrated on March 21, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. It was introduced in Egypt by journalist Mustafa Amin in his book Smiling America (1943). The idea was overlooked at the time. Later Amin heard the story of a widowed mother who devoted her whole life to raising her son until he became a doctor. The son then married and left without showing any gratitude to his mother. Hearing this, Amin became motivated to promote “Mother’s Day”. The idea was first ridiculed by president Gamal Abdel Nasser but he eventually accepted it and Mother’s Day was first celebrated on March 21, 1956. The practice has since been copied by other Arab countries.

When Mustafa Amin was arrested and imprisoned, there were attempts to change the name of the holiday from “Mother’s Day” to “Family Day” as the government wished to prevent the occasion from reminding people of its founder. These attempts were unsuccessful and celebrations continued to be held on that day; classic songs celebrating mothers remain famous to this day.

Afghanistan – Scott #B89a (1969) souvenir sheet

In Hindu tradition, Mother’s Day is called Mata Tirtha Aunshi or “Mother Pilgrimage fortnight”, and is celebrated in countries with a Hindu population, especially in Nepal. The holiday is observed on the new moon day in the month of Baisakh, (April/May). This celebration is based on Hindu religion and it pre-dates the creation of the U.S.-inspired celebration by at least a few centuries.

In Buddhism, the festival of Ullambana is derived from the story of Maudgalyayana and his mother.

People’s Republic of China – Michel #4462 (2013)

Mother’s Day is becoming more popular in China. Carnations are a very popular Mother’s Day gift and the most sold flowers in relation to the day. In 1997, Mother’s Day was set as the day to help poor mothers and to remind people of the poor mothers in rural areas such as China’s western region. In the People’s Daily, the Chinese government’s official newspaper, an article explained that “despite originating in the United States, people in China accept the holiday without hesitation because it is in line with the country’s traditional ethics — respect for the elderly and filial piety towards parents.”

In recent years, the Communist Party member Li Hanqiu began to advocate for the official adoption of Mother’s Day in memory of Meng Mu, the mother of Mèng Zǐ. He formed a non-governmental organization called Chinese Mothers’ Festival Promotion Society, with the support of 100 Confucian scholars and lecturers of ethics. Li and the Society want to replace the Western-style gift of carnations with lilies, which, in ancient times, were planted by Chinese mothers when children left home. Mother’s Day remains an unofficial festival, except in a small number of cities.

Thailand – Michel #3241 (2012)

Mother’s Day here in Thailand is celebrated on the birthday of Queen Mother Sirikit, August 12 August. She is particularly revered in the more remote and traditional parts of the country, where the monarchy is regarded as semi-divine. She is often referred to as the “Mother of all Thai people.” Her work in promoting tolerance and understanding for the Muslim minorities in the southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat have made her especially popular amongst Thai Muslims. The queen has a strong bond with southern Thailand, and she formerly spent months in the Muslim-majority provinces every year. In 1976, the Thai government honored Queen Sirikit by declaring her birthday a national holiday as part of the campaign by the Prime Minister of Thailand Prem Tinsulanonda to promote Thailand’s Royal family. A Stamp A Day has had articles about Thailand’s Mothers Day (most spellings in English-language media do not include an apostrophe at all) and the Queen Mother in 2016, 2017, and 2018.

In the United States, women’s peace groups tried to establish holidays and regular activities in favor of peace as early as the 1860’s. A common early activity was the meeting of groups of mothers whose sons had fought or died on opposite sides of the American Civil War. In 1868, Ann Jarvis, Anna Jarvis’s mother, organized a committee to establish a “Mother’s Friendship Day”, the purpose of which was “to reunite families that had been divided during the Civil War.” She had previously organized Mother’s Day Work Clubs to improve sanitation and health for both Union and Confederate encampments undergoing a typhoid outbreak and wanted to expand these into an annual memorial for mothers. Ann Jarvis died in 1905 before the annual celebration was established. Her daughter, who became almost obsessed with her, would continue her mother’s efforts.

Austria – Scott #809 (1968) first day cover

There were several limited observances in the 1870s and the 1880s but none achieved resonance beyond the local level. At the time, Protestant schools in the United States already held many celebrations and observations such as Children’s Day, Temperance Sunday, Roll Call Day, Decision Day, Missionary Day and others. In New York City, Julia Ward Howe led a “Mother’s Day for Peace” anti-war observance on June 2, 1872, which was accompanied by a “Appeal to womanhood throughout the world” (nowadays known as Mother’s Day Proclamation). The observance continued in Boston for about 10 years under Howe’s personal sponsorship, then died out. In these celebrations, mothers all around the world would work towards world peace.

Several years later a Mother’s Day observance on May 13, 1877, was held in Albion, Michigan over a dispute related to the temperance movement. According to local legend, Albion pioneer Juliet Calhoun Blakeley stepped up to complete the sermon of the Rev. Myron Daughterty who was distraught because an anti-temperance group had forced his son and two other temperance advocates at gunpoint to spend the night in a saloon and become publicly drunk. From the pulpit Blakeley called on other mothers to join her. Blakeley’s two sons, both traveling salesmen, were so moved that they vowed to return each year to pay tribute to her and embarked on a campaign to urge their business contacts to do likewise. At their urging, in the early 1880s, the Methodist Episcopal Church in Albion set aside the second Sunday in May to recognize the special contributions of mothers.

Northern Pacific Railway postcard for Mother’s Day 1916.

Frank E. Hering, alumnus and administrator at the University of Notre Dame and President of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, made a plea for “setting aside one day in the year as a nationwide memorial to the memories of Mothers and motherhood” in 1904. After observing a class of Notre Dame students sending home penny postcards to their mothers, Hering went on to be a vocal advocate for a national Mother’s Day for the next decade. As Hering stated in a 1941 issue of Scholastic: “Throughout history the great men of the world have given their credit for their achievements to their mothers. [The] Holy Church recognizes this, as does Notre Dame especially, and Our Lady who watches over our great institution.”

In its present form, Mother’s Day was established by Anna Jarvis with the help of Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker following the death of her mother, Ann Jarvis, on May 9, 1905. Jarvis never mentioned Howe or Mothering Sunday, and she never mentioned any connection to the Protestant school celebrations, always claiming that the creation of Mother’s Day was hers alone.

A small service was held on May 12, 1907, in the Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where Anna’s mother had been teaching Sunday school. The first “official” service was on May 10, 1908, in the same church, accompanied by a larger ceremony in the Wanamaker Auditorium in the Wanamaker’s store in Philadelphia. The next year the day was reported to be widely celebrated in New York.

Jarvis then campaigned to establish Mother’s Day first as a U.S. national holiday and then later as an international holiday. The holiday was declared officially by the state of West Virginia in 1910, and the rest of the states followed quickly.

On May 10, 1913, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on all federal government officials (from the president down) to wear a white carnation the following day in observance of Mother’s Day. On May 8, 1914, the U.S. Congress passed a law designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day and requesting a proclamation. The next day, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation declaring the first national Mother’s Day as a day for American citizens to show the flag in honor of those mothers whose sons had died in war. In 1934, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved a stamp commemorating the holiday.

Cover marking the 20th anniversary of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Mother’s Day Proclamation. Postmarked at Logansport, Indiana, on May 13, 1934, and bearing United States Scott #737, issued on May 2, 1934, to honor America’s mothers. Image sourced from active eBay auction.

In May 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives voted twice on a resolution commemorating Mother’s Day, the first one being passed without a dissenting vote (21 members not voting). The Grafton church, where the first celebration was held, is now the International Mother’s Day Shrine and is a National Historic Landmark.

Mother’s Day traditions in the United States include churchgoing — yielding the highest church attendance after Christmas Eve and Easter — as well as family dinners and the distribution of carnations. Carnations have come to represent Mother’s Day since Anna Jarvis delivered 500 of them at the first celebration in 1908. Many religious services held later adopted the custom of giving away carnations. This also started the custom of wearing a carnation on the holiday. Jarvis chose the carnation because it was the favorite flower of her mother. In part due to the shortage of white carnations, and in part due to the efforts to expand the sales of more types of flowers in Mother’s Day, florists invented the idea of wearing a pink carnation if your mother was living, or a white one if she was dead; this was tirelessly promoted until it made its way into the popular observations at churches. Other less traditional flower options may include roses, a live blooming plant, flower leis, or a bouquet of a variety of different flowers.

English: First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama, Prince Harry of Wales, and Jill Biden help military children create Mother’s Day cards and other crafts in the State Dining Room of the White House on 9 May 2013. The children presented the gifts to their mothers during the Joining Forces Military Mother’s Day Tea in the East Room. Photo taken by Lawrence Jackson for the White House (P050913LJ-0419) on May 9, 2013.

The commercialization of the American holiday began very early, and only nine years after the first official Mother’s Day it had become so rampant that Anna Jarvis herself became a major opponent of what the holiday had become, spending all her inheritance and the rest of her life fighting what she saw as an abuse of the celebration. She decried the practice of purchasing greeting cards, which she saw as a sign of being too lazy to write a personal letter. She was arrested in 1948 for disturbing the peace while protesting against the commercialization of Mother’s Day, and she finally said that she “…wished she would have never started the day because it became so out of control …” She died later that year.

Mother’s Day is now one of the most commercially successful American occasions, having become the most popular day of the year to dine out at a restaurant in the United States. Mother’s Day is also the biggest holiday for long-distance telephone calls and generates a significant portion of the U.S. jewelry industry’s annual revenue, from custom gifts like mother’s rings. Americans spend approximately $2.6 billion on flowers, $1.53 billion on pampering gifts — like spa treatments — and another $68 million on greeting cards. It is the third largest holiday in the U.S. for sending cards. According to the greeting card industry, it is estimated that more than 50 percent of American households send greeting cards on this holiday.

It is possible that the holiday would have withered over time without the support and continuous promotion of the florist industries and other commercial industries. But Mother’s Day has endured while other Protestant holidays from the same time period as its beginnings, such as Children’s Day and Temperance Sunday, are no longer celebrated in the United States.

In realizing that today was Mexican Mother’s Day, I had originally planned to create a brief posting on my other stamp blog — Philatelic Pursuits — as I had several stamps from México marking the holiday. I hadn’t planned on marking the U.S. holiday at all (nor did I include an article about Mother’s Day on this blog in either 2017 or 2018). When I took a look at the history of Mother’s Day and how it is celebrated around the world, my interest was piqued.  I decided to choose one of the Día de las Madres stamps from México currently in my collection and put together a full article combining the origins of the U.S. holiday and how it spread south of the border (an opposite counterpart to my recent Cinco de Mayo blog).

México – Michel #4045 (2017) first day cover

México issued several stamps on Mother’s Day promoting various women’s issues beginning with Scott #1649 on May 10, 1990, which promoted the health of young mothers and continuing the following year with Scott #1691 which promoted breast-feeding, issued on May 10, 1991. On May 10, 1992, a stamp was released to bring attention to midwives in the country (Scott #1734), becoming the last “Mother’s Day” issue by México for sixteen years. The first stamp inscribed Día de las Madres was a 6.50-peso stamp depicting a mother and child amongst leaves issued on May 2, 2008 (Scott #2573). Two years later, a series of annual Mother’s Day stamps began that continued until 2018 (I have yet to hear word of a 2019 release). Scott #2675 was released on April 23, 2010, picturing flowers; the stamp released on April 13, 2011 (Scott #2733) was the first Mother’s Day stamp to appear in the large square format. There were two Mother’s Day stamps, each denominated at 7 pesos, released on April 26, 2012 (Michel #3704-3705) but there have been only one issued each year since: Michel #3769 on May 9, 2013; Michel #3837 on May 9, 2014; Michel #3912 on May 11, 2015; and Michel #3986 on May 9, 2016. Last year’s design, released on May 9, 2018, was a return to a rectangular format (I do not yet have a catalogue number for this one).

Today’s featured stamp was issued by Servicio Postal Mexicano on May 9, 2017 (Michel #4045). I think it illustrates the multitasking done by modern mothers very well. The 7-peso stamp is in a large square format, measuring 40 millimeters per side and was printed by Talleres de Impresion de Estampillas y Valores using offset lithography. The total print run was 101,000 copies of the stamp, issued in sheets of 20 perforated 13.

Mexico – Michel #4045 (2017)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.