THE HISTORY OF
Commercialism has grasped all of our holidays: Easter, Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and so forth. Mother’s Day is no exception. Perhaps it is important to keep the greeting cards, flowers, and candy moving over the store shelves. Many people think, in fact, that Mother’s Day was invented by Hallmark. However, like most of our other holidays, Mother’s Day celebrations can be traced to an ancient pagan celebration.
The custom of honoring mothers began thousands of years ago. Myths were created by people as they began to weave wonderful stories about gods and goddesses who moved the sun across the sky and twinkled the stars at night. These stories were added to year after year.
Some of the first myths were told by the ancient people of Phrygia in Asia Minor. They believed that the most important goddess was Cybele, the daughter of Heaven and Earth, and she was considered to be the mother of all gods. Once a year, the people of Phrygia (where the apostle Philip preached) held a festival to honor her. This is probably the first celebration to honor a mother.
The Greek people also had a powerful goddess who was the mother of all their gods. She was called Rhea. Likewise, the Romans had a mother of all their gods, and she was the called the Magna Mater, or “Great Mother.” A temple on the Palatine Hill in Rome was built for her. Each year on March 15, there was a three-day festival to honor her, and it was called the Festival of Hilaria. Gifts were brought to the temple to please this “powerful” mother-goddess.
With the coming of Christianity, a celebration was held to honor the “Mother Church.” It was celebrated on the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Lataere Sunday -- Rejoice or Pink Sunday) and people brought gifts to the church where they had been baptized. After church, the minister gave the children bunches of purple violets and red roses to present to their mothers.
During the Middle Ages, another kind of celebration began. Since many children had to leave home to earn money, and they were only allowed one holiday a year, it was on the Fourth Sunday in Lent that the children went home to see their mothers. This was called “a-mothering,” and thus the custom of “Mothering Sunday” was started. This became especially popular in England since there were so many children laborers. A special cake called the “mothering cake” was brought along to provide a festive touch.
Eventually, the “Mother Church” celebration and “Mothering Sunday” blended together and people began to honor mothers as well as the church.
When the first settlers came to America, they simply did not have the time for the many celebrations they had known. So Mothering Sunday ceased to be celebrated – that is, until 1872. The first suggestion for a Mother’s Day in America was made that year by the famous writer, Julia Ward Howe. We remember her as the writer of the lyrics for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” No one took Ms. Howe serious, however, even though she held yearly Mother’s Day meetings in Boston.
The founder of America’s Mother’s Day is considered to be Ann Jarvis, a Philadelphia school teacher. She convinced her own mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia to celebrate Mother’s Day on the second anniversary of her mother’s death which happened to be on the second Sunday of May. Her mother had hoped that “sometime, somewhere, someone will found a Mother’s Day.” She felt such a day would help end fighting and hatred still left over from the Civil War. So, the first Mother’s Day was held on May 12, 1907. By the following year, Mother’s Day was being celebrated throughout Philadelphia.
Ms. Jarvis and her supporters then began to write to ministers, businessmen, and politicians to establish a national Mother’s Day. By 1911, it was celebrated in almost every state in the nation. So in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made it official by proclaiming Mother’s Day a national holiday that was to be held each year on the 2nd Sunday of May.
By 1923, the holiday had grown to be the commercial day that it has become. Anna Jarvis, disgusted by what had flourished from the original holiday, filed a lawsuit to impede the Mother’s Day festival. She was later arrested for disturbing the peace at a gathering of war time mothers. She was enraged to find people “selling” carnations. (White carnations represent sweetness, purity and endurance of a mother’s love. Red carnations, in time, became the symbol of a living mother; white carnations now signify that one’s mother has died.)
Toward the end of her life, Anna Jarvis bitterly stated that she regretted ever having created Mother’s Day. She died alone in a nursing home in 1948 at the age of 84. She had never married and had no children. She had spent most of her life caring for her blind sister.
Once again, as I’ve stated in previous holiday articles, the celebration is what you make it. There is something heavenly, even divine about Mother’s Day, regardless of how it got started. This little story might put it in perspective.
Once upon a time there was a child ready to be born. One day he asked God: “They tell me you are sending me to earth tomorrow, how am I going to live there being so small and helpless?"
God replied, “Among the many angels, I chose one for you. She will be waiting for you and will take care of you.”
“But tell me, here in heaven, I don't do anything else but sing and smile, that’s enough for me to be happy.”
“Your angel will sing for you and will also smile for you every day. And you will feel your angel’s love and be happy.”
“And how am I going to be able to understand when people talk to me, if I don’t know the language that men talk?”
“Your angel will tell you the most beautiful and sweet words you will ever hear, and with much patience and care, your angel will teach you how to speak.”
“And what am I going to do when I want to talk to you?”
“Your angel will place your hands together and will teach you how to pray.”
“I've heard that on earth there are bad men. Who will protect me?”
“Your angel will defend you even if it means risking its life.”
“But I will always be sad because I will not see you anymore.”
“Your angel will always talk to you about me and will teach you the way for you to come back to me, even though I will always be next to you.”
At that moment there was much peace in heaven, but voices from earth could already be heard. And the child in a hurry asked softly: “Oh God, if I am about to leave now, please tell me my angel's name.”
“Your angel's name is of no importance, you will call your angel: ‘Mommy’”.
Mothers are so special and fulfill such an important role in our lives that they deserve to be celebrated. We have been created in the image of God, and it is God’s intention for us to be an interdependent people. In their roles as mothers, these special people present to us an image of how we are supposed to interact with one another. Our understanding of the role of motherhood brings us closer to a better understanding of the mystery we call God.
When we are called to describe our mothers, we often come up with words such as “my best friend,” “very supportive,” “compassionate,” “unconditional love,” “nurturing,” and “affectionate.” Our descriptions are often the same ones we use to describe God. Throughout the centuries, we have used the image of mothers to describe God.
In the Old Testament, God frequently speaks of “himself” as mother, “bearing” the Israelites in the divine bosom, “conceiving” them in the divine womb. The Hebrew Bible often speaks of God who cries out like a woman in labor, gives birth to Israel and comforts as a mother. In Isaiah 49:15, we read, “Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb,” or In Isaiah 66:13, “Like a son comforted by his mother I will comfort you.”
In Hosea, we have “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will pounce on them.” (13:8). Even in the New Testament, we hear in Matthew 23:37, Christ describing himself as a hen gathering chicks under his wings: “I longed to gather your children as a hen gathers her chicks under her winds, and you refused.”
The early Church Fathers (Clement, Origen, Irenaeus, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine) often described Christ as one who loves and nurses his people like a mother. In 1978, Pope John Paul I spoke of God’s mystery in these words: “We are objects of undying love on the part of God. God is our father, even more, God is our mother. God does not want to hurt us, but only to do good for us, all of us, just like a mother.”
When celebrating Mother’s Day, we must also thank our mothers for teaching us about God though their compassion, caring, nurturing, unconditional love, and all those good things we appreciate about them. By reflecting upon and emulating their motherhood, we ourselves become more like God, in whose image were are all created.
As Christians, we have only one God. As humans we have only one mother. Be good to your mother. If your mother is no longer with you, pray for her and tell her you love her. If you’re lucky enough to have her still with you, pray for her and tell her often that you love her! I love you mom.
M is for the million things she gave me.
O is for only that she is growing old
T is for the tears she shed to save me
H is for her heart of purest as gold
E is for her eyes, with love-light shining
R is for right, and right she'll always be
Put them all together, they spell
A word that means the world to me.
-- Howard Johnson (c. 1915)