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The Real Meaning of Mother’s Day

May 7, 2009

There are very few things that I loathe as much as I loathe the “Hallmark Holiday.” The idea that a bunch of marketing people got together and decided to “make” people spend money on STUFF and give perfunctory gifts in celebration of something that they should, frankly, be expressively thankful for all the time, just pisses me off. I’m sorry, it does. Mother’s day has always been the worst of them for me. If ever there was a “person” who you ought to appreciate every day of the year, and know that it has nothing to do with material gains, it’s me. I mean it’s mothers. (I just happen to be one.) (And have one.)

So, imagine my joy when I discovered that not only is Hallmark not responsible for Mother’s Day, their insidious and saccharin commercialism is actually covering up a really cool holiday, the true meaning and origin of which has been completely lost.

Lemme ‘splain.

Mother’s Day began to take root in 1858, when Anna Jarvis created work groups of mothers to deal with health and sanitation issues in her community. These groups of mothers continued to work for the greater good, even through the civil war when they cared for soldiers and refused to take sides, caring for wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict.

Mind you, Anna Jarvis was only 26, and the mother of 11 kids (having lost 8,) so it’s not like she had lots of time on her hands – and certainly had no Internet to make it easier.

None the less, Anna kept her groups of moms together, and when the civil war ended, she created Mother’s Friendship Day to reconcile friends and family torn apart by the civil war.

Fast forward to 1870, when Julia Ward Howe – a writer, abolitionist and suffragist from Boston – issued a proclamation calling for mothers around the world to band together to end war. This, my friends, is what mother’s day was originally about. There have been some valiant attempts to bring back the meaning of Mother’s Day in protest of the war in Iraq, but that mission is far from accomplished.

By 1914 or so, Mother’s Day was an international event, but it was more about celebrating your mother than about fighting for justice, safety and equality for all people on the planet.

There are loads more details to be read on sites like Take Back The Day, and I highly recommend reading them.

But what I really want, as a mother, is to think about the origins of this day. This day was never about buying gifts or greeting cards, massages or brunches. That was never the point.

Think of Anna Jarvis and Julia Howe as the figurative Mothers of Humanity. They wanted, for all humanity, what all mothers want for their own children. They wanted peace, they wanted their children to be healthy, safe, educated and cared for. They wanted their children not to die fighting stupid wars. They wanted their children to remember than even when dogma-fueled wars do divide us, our humanity unites us. They wanted us to care for each other.

Find me a mother that doesn’t want that. THAT is what defines a mother. And it should be what defines Mother’s Day. Not that you should be buying gifts, but that you should look at those around you through that same lens and find a way to help them, care for them, alleviate pain and promote their future.

Got it? Mother’s create futures for their children. That’s what we want you all to do too.

It’s interesting to note that Anna Jarvis herself is quoted as saying, in response to the commercialism, that she “wished she would have never started the day because it became so out of control.”

How out of control? According to IBIS World, a publisher of business research, Americans will spend approximately $2.6 billion on flowers, $1.53 billion on pampering gifts-like spa treatments-and another $68 million on greeting cards.

Imagine what all that money could do to support education, healthcare, peace, arts….

Wow.

By all means, you should take your mother to brunch now and then, buy her little gifts now and then, call her up and tell her you love her for no reason at all. But if you want to buy a really good gift, maybe we can all band together and spend all that money on something that she would really want – like, I dunno, world peace or something.

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