So… Mother’s Day will be a little challenging this year..but consider the drama of how it all began…
Anna started it. She was a clerk in an insurance office and leveraged the power of a letter-writing campaign. In 1905, upon the death of her mother, she committed herself to honoring her memory with a special day each year. Every second Sunday in May, she would hand out white carnations to all the ladies in her West Virginia church congregation and wish them a happy day. She wrote to churches across the country asking them to adopt the practice. By 1908, the holiday was so widespread that a bill was proposed in the Senate, sponsored by the YMCA, to make the day a national holiday. It failed, but by 1912 West Virginia had made the day official, and finally, in 1914, President Wilson signed Mother’s Day into national law.
But then another Anna – who went by her second name, Eleanor – co-opted the event. By the 1930’s, the holiday had exploded in popularity and morphed into a huge money-maker for greeting card and confectionery companies. In the midst of the Depression, Eleanor realized that the holiday could be put to good use as a day of giving. She went on the radio and encouraged folks to remember, on Mother’s Day, the less fortunate, and to give to charitable causes. It was a kind notion.
But not to Anna, who found the idea repugnant. Over the years she had become concerned over the commercialization of Mother’s Day; she’d crashed a confectionery trade show in 1923 in protest; she’d threatened to sue all the card and candy companies for trademark infringement; she’d sued the Governor of New York over a Mother’s Day celebration; she’d even gotten arrested for trying to break up a sale of white carnations. But cross-promoting her mother’s holiday with charity? That was too much.
And that’s how we got to a bizarre moment in holiday history. On Mother’s Day, 1935, Anna Reeves Jarvis – the mother of Mother’s Day – publicly criticized Anna Eleanor Roosevelt – the mother of the country – for her “crafty plotting” and for using Mother’s Day to fight against – of all things! – high mortality rates among mothers and infants.
And Anna was just getting warmed up. Using her family fortune, she set up a company to defend the copyright on “Mother’s Day” and to rescind the holiday that she had created. For the rest of her life she railed against the “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.”
In the end, she failed; the holiday she had created had taken on a life of its own and she could not undo what she had created. Eventually, the family money ran out and she moved in with her sister in Philadelphia. Tragically, the story ends in 1948, when Anna Jarvis died, penniless and childless, in a sanatorium. She is buried next to her mother in West Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Mother’s Day is the third largest commercial holiday of the year. But in our current situation, when gifts and cards to Mom may be replaced by a video chat, give a thought to Anna’s original conception, and appreciate why she created Mother’s Day in the first place.
“I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit.”