Twenty billion dollars. That’s roughly the amount Americans are expected spend this year1 to dishonor the Mother’s Day holiday and its founders, Ann and Anna Jarvis. No other holiday is as popular for dining out;2 Hallmark reports it’s the number three holiday for card sales, behind Christmas and Valentine’s Day; and only on Christmas are more gifts given. Anna Jarvis would be fuming.
Jarvis, the woman who got President Woodrow Wilson to issue the first national Mother’s Day proclamation, would be irate today, I’m certain, because she was deeply disturbed a century ago as she saw the day being warped into a commercial gold mine for the buying and giving of flowers, candies, and greeting cards.
She tried to reclaim control over the day through incorporation. She organized boycotts, threatened lawsuits, and even attacked First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise funds for charities. In 1923 she crashed a confectioners convention in Philadelphia and did the same thing two years later at an American War Mothers convention, which had turned the day into a fund-raising opportunity. There’s where Jarvis was arrested for disturbing the peace.
The roots of the day go back to the 1850s, when Ann Jarvis organized Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and lower infant mortality by fighting disease and curbing milk contamination. The groups tended wounded soldiers on both sides during the Civil War, and their work continued after the war in developing pacifist strategies to unite former enemies and in calling women to take an active role in promoting peace. After Ann’s death, her daughter Anna picked up the cause and got President Wilson to set aside the second Sunday in May for the holiday. Anna continued the fight against commercializing the day into the early 1940s, a few years before her death.
Today, most of Ann and Anna Jarvis’s work has been lost and the original sentiments of Mother’s Day forgotten. But there still is a way to honor the day and its purpose. According to historian Katharine Antolini, of West Virginia Wesleyan, Mother’s Day for Anna Jarvis “was a day where you’d go home to spend time with your mother and thank her for all that she did. It wasn’t to celebrate all mothers. It was to celebrate . . . your mother – as a son or a daughter.”3
Mother’s Day starts with an expression of gratitude. Maybe your mother is, or was, the best one ever, or maybe not. Maybe you celebrate her love and her gifts to you, or maybe you remember her emotional distance and her abuse. There are plenty of women who are biological mothers and yet are not mothers at all. “Biology,” Oprah Winfrey said, “is the least of what makes someone a mother.” But no matter what our mother’s gifts or faults, we can all be grateful to her for the gift of life – not life in general, not life in theory, but my life, your life, the particular life that is ours.
So Mother’s Day can be a day for giving thanks. In what might otherwise be another busy day, pause long enough to get a deep sense of how precarious and precious and potent life is, and reflect on the worth in your life of the one who carried and sustained and nurtured you to birth. Then find a way to express your gratitude to her, not with someone else’s words purchased at a card shop but with your own deeply personal and original words or other expressions.
There’s another way to honor Mother’s Day that is faithful to its purpose. That’s to answer the call of Julia Ward Howe’s original Mother’s Day Proclamation and “solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God [and] to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”
It would be easy, I think, to keep the focus of Mother’s Day too close to home. It would be easy to limit the Festival of the Christian Home to the boundaries of the nuclear family, however that may be defined. The day is about much more than that. This day is about changing the fabric of society.
It’s about ushering in the Year of Jubilee, the year of radical social and economic transformation when swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and nations learn war no more (Isa. 2:4). It’s about making real the dream of a time when justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream (Amos 4:24), when wealth and power are redistributed equitably.
That original Mother’s Day Proclamation called for women to stand up and stand together and to make a difference for good and peace in the world. It called for international disarmament. It called for relevance in government. It called for our social, political, and economic fabric to be shaped not according to the temporal values of a generation or a political party or a nation but according to the eternal values of God. If we are to claim the spirit of Ann and Anna Jarvis and celebrate a true Mother’s Day, we might spend this day in true gratitude and commit our lives to the cause of peace and justice.
Notes — 1. National Retail Federation. ▪ 2. U.S. National Restaurant Association. ▪ 3. “Mother’s Day Turns 100,” National Geographic, May 2014.