The tragic story behind Mother's Day

This Sunday is Mother's Day, and while it's meant to be a joyous event, the tale of its founder is actually quite heartbreaking.
Mother's Day has become an internationally recognized day of celebration, but its beginnings were bittersweet. ((iStock))

Mother's Day, which falls this year on May 8, is meant to be a joyous event, but the story behind this greeting-card occasion is actually quite tragic.

The concept dates back to the 1600s in England. Taking place on the fourth Sunday of Lent, "Mothering Sunday" was an annual opportunity for Christians to visit their hometown church. It slowly evolved, as children working far away as domestic servants came back home to spend time with their mothers and family.

The modern version of Mother's Day took form in the early 20th century, thanks to Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis and her daughter Anna.

By 1912, Anna Jarvis felt that Mother's Day was being exploited by the flower, stationery and candy industries.

Born in 1832 in Virginia, Ann Marie was a social activist whose goal was to improve health and sanitary conditions inside community households.

Her Mother's Day Work Clubs raised money for medicine and hired help for moms suffering from tuberculosis.

During the American Civil War, Ann Marie lost four of her children to disease; in total, eight of her 12 offspring died before reaching adulthood. Despite her personal tragedies, Ann Marie never stopped her community service.

"Ann Marie justified being involved in community actions in the name of motherhood. When she envisioned Mother's Day, it was more about community service," says Katharine Antolini, a professor of history at West Virginia Wesleyan College who wrote her dissertation on Mother's Day. "It wasn't about thanking your mother for all she did."

PHOTO GALLERY: Flowers for mom

Ann Marie died on the second Sunday in May of 1905. After she passed away, her daughter Anna made it her mission to make Mother's Day a holiday — not only to honour her mother, but all mothers.

On the second Sunday in May of 1907, Anna held a small memorial service for her mother at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, W.Va. The mourners present received a white carnation, which had been Ann Marie's favourite flower. Anna organized another one a year later, and this service is generally accepted as the first official Mother's Day event.

Anna envisioned Mother's Day as a celebration of the home and all that your mother did for you.

"That is why part of her celebration was to come visit your mother on that day," says Antolini. "You're thanking your mother for all the sacrifices she has made for you. So if you can't be at home that day, you send her a handwritten letter."

To further the cause, Anna created the Mother's Day International Association in 1912. The group was intended to promote the day and organize events. But Anna soon began to resent the commercial aspect of the occasion. 

"Instead of honestly expressing your deep appreciation for your mother in a lengthy letter, you sent a greeting card," says Antolini, who claims Anna felt like "her holiday" was being exploited by the flower, stationery and candy industries.

Anna was most upset with florists, who in her mind had exploited the white carnations she had first handed out as a symbol of her mother. According to Antolini, carnations were relatively inexpensive in 1908, costing only half a cent; by 1912, a white carnation was about 15 cents, and by 1920, some florists were charging a dollar. (Mother's Day is now the second-busiest day of the year for florists, after Valentine's Day.)

Anna Jarvis, seen in a 1928 photo, is acknowledged as the founder of Mother's Day. (Associated Press)

To combat the commodification of the white carnation, Anna created a button that she gave out for free so people wouldn't have to buy the real flower.

Determined to make her anti-consumerist point, Anna copyrighted the words "Mother's Day," as well as the emblem of the white carnation. According to Antolini, Anna felt that Mother's Day was her intellectual and legal property. In 1923, Anna threatened to sue the New York Mother's Day Committee because they planned to hold a large Mother's Day celebration. The event was eventually canceled.

In 1925, Anna stormed a Philadelphia convention of the American War Mothers, a non-profit support group of women whose sons served in the armed forces. They were holding their own Mother's Day tribute and used the white carnation emblem. Anna was arrested for crashing the meeting and charged with disorderly conduct. The charges were later dropped.

"Many people called her crazy, but I don't think that is fair. She was very defensive. In her mind, it was her day," says Antolini.

Anna became so consumed with her battle that a number of her friends arranged for her to be admitted into an asylum in 1944. She died four years later, at the age of 84, with no money or children.

Of course, since then, Mother's Day has become even more of a cash cow. In addition to Hallmark card lines and gourmet chocolates, Mother's Day gifts now include everything from purses and handbags to diamond rings and spa packages. 

Antolini believes Anna would be happy the day is celebrated internationally and that it has survived so long.

"But Anna would not appreciate the excessive amount of consumerism associated with Mother's Day today," says Antolini. "The real meaning of the day is lost. Anna would also not like the fact her name has been lost within the evolution of Mother's Day."