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Mothering Sunday: The Christian roots of Mother’s Day


Alvesgaspar (CC BY-SA 4.0)

J-P Mauro - published on 05/11/19

Christians of the Renaissance would use the holiday for a trip to their "mother church."
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How did Mother’s Day begin? What are the origins of this day set aside to especially honor our mothers? The springtime celebration has existed in America for over 100 years, but prior to its 20th-century development, there was another holiday set to honor the matron of the household: Mothering Sunday.

The ancient world reports that it can be argued that the roots of Mother’s day go back all the way to the Ancient Greeks, who held an annual spring festival dedicated to maternal goddesses. The Ancient Romans held a similar event called Hilaria, dedicated to Cybele, a mother goddess. This ceremony, practiced around 250 BC, would last for three days and include parades and games.

While these holidays prove that the concept of a day set aside to honor our mothers is older than the Christian faith, it is probable that these ancient celebrations had little to do with the establishment of Mother’s Day, especially since the earliest form of the holiday only developed in the Renaissance.

Christian roots

In the 16th century, Christians from the UK and Ireland would return to their “mother church” for a service which was held on Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. A “mother church” could refer to the parish in which one was baptized, the local parish church, or even the closest cathedral, which was viewed as the mother church of all parishes in a given diocese.

Thosewho practiced this custom were said to have gone “a-mothering,” and soon it became known as “Mothering Sunday.” As the popularity of “Mothering Sunday” grew, it became a day when domestic servants were given leave to be with their families. The day became one of the few times a year where a grown family could gather, as working families often had conflicting schedules.

Once the tradition became a day for family reunion, with a reference to mothers in the name, it naturally evolved to include all mothers within the celebration. For children, the long walk back home became a time for picking flowers for mom, and this would grow to the tradition of giving gifts of all sorts to mothers.

In the United States

In America, the nationally observed holiday of Mother’s Day was already established by WWII. The effort to create the holiday was driven by Anna Jarvis, whose mother had come up with the idea. Anna began her work on the holiday after her mother’s death in 1905 and it was brought to Congress in 1908, but there it was rejected, with representatives joking that they would also have to proclaim a “Mother-in-law’s Day.”

Anna did not lose sight of the goal, however, and after several years of campaigning and sending carnations, her mother’s favorite flowers, to lawmakers to raise awareness of the important holiday, every state observed Mother’s Day by 1911. On May 8, 1914, President Wilson signed a Joint Resolution that formally designated the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day.

Back in the UK, by the 19th century, the custom of gift-giving was waning, but when American soldiers were stationed in the UK during World War II, they noticed the tradition and brought it back to the States as a way to both honor mothers and boost seasonal commerce. Once the “business” aspect of Mother’s Day caught on, the holiday took off in a big way.

The threat of commercialism

Unfortunately, Anna Jarvis took umbrage at the commercialism of her hard-won holiday. She argued that gifts to mothers should be made by hand in order to properly express their love and gratitude. She spent the latter part of her life attempting to remove the holiday from the calendar, but was unsuccessful.

In one instance, at a meeting of American War Mothers where the group was selling carnations, which had already become closely connected to Mother’s Day, Jarvis became enraged over a perceived perversion of her mother’s intentions and was arrested for disturbing the peace.

Today a secular Mother’s Day is celebrated by many countries, including the US, UK, India, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Turkey, Australia, Mexico, Canada, China, Japan and Belgium. It is quite possible, however, that none of these countries would have developed the practice if not for the Christian practice of Mothering Sunday.

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