A true Mother’s Day

Twenty billion dollars, according to the National Retail Federation. That’s roughly the amount Americans are expected to spend this year for Mother’s Day. No other holiday is as popular for dining out; Hallmark reports it generates the third highest number of 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 because she was deeply disturbed a century ago as she saw the day becoming a commercial gold mine for buying and giving flowers, candies, and greeting cards.

She tried to regain 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 Jarvis 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.”

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, 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.

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 brought 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: to stop training our children for war; to bring about international disarmament, and to “solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace; [and] to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”

In other words, we would honor the spirit of Mother’s Day by committing ourselves to obey the command of Christ to love one another as Christ loved us: to recognize that every other person has an essential role to play in God’s ongoing creation, even if we don’t know what that role is; to recognize that without any single one of those other persons, our own lives would be essentially diminished; and to act toward every other person accordingly, in every arena from our individual social interactions to our national and international politics.

The original Mother’s Day Proclamation called for women to stand up and stand together 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.

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