University of Vermont

Mother's Day: Not a Hallmark Creation

(left) Anna Jarvis (by Corbis Bettmann); (right) Floral bouquet (Wikimedia, Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)

We have Anna Jarvis to thank for Mother's Day, observed on May 13 this year, and the tradition of honoring mothers with flowers. In 1907, two years after this West Virginia native's mother passed away, Jarvis began a nationwide campaign to establish an official Mother's Day. 

By 1910 she had convinced West Virginia Governor William Ellsworth Glasscock to proclaim a statewide Mother's Day, but it wasn't until 1914 that the holiday finally received national recognition. President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation declaring that the second Sunday in May be recognized as Mother's Day. 

The idea of a special day to honor mothers was not a new idea. Some historians tie modern day Mother's Day celebrations to the ancient Greek festivities held each spring in honor of Rhea, the Mother of the Gods.

In seventeenth-century England "Mothering Sunday" was celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent. It was a "day off" for servants and apprentices, many of whom lived with their employers, to allow them to visit their mothers. Tradition called for bringing a gift of a "mothering cake," usually simnel cake (a very rich fruitcake). 

It's possible that Jarvis got the idea for honoring all mothers everywhere from her own mother, Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis, who founded Mother's Friendship Clubs in Taylor County, West Virginia, with her physician brother in the mid-1800s. Their goal was to help prevent the deaths of children by teaching mothers proper food safety and sanitation methods. After the Civil War, Mrs. Jarvis organized a Mother's Friendship Day picnic to help heal the emotional rifts between neighbors on different sides of the war.

After her mother passed away, Jarvis convinced her family's church to hold a service in honor of her mother on the anniversary of her death. The tradition of giving flowers may have started with this first Mother's Day service, held May 10, 1908. Jarvis sent 500 carnations, her mother's favorite flower, to the church with the instructions to give one flower to every parishioner and two to every mother. 

She selected white carnations because they represented the virtues of motherhood--purity, kindness, and endurance of a mother's love for her children. Today the tradition of wearing a carnation to honor one's mother continues with red indicating a living mother, white for someone who's deceased.

While a corsage or bouquet of fresh carnations makes a good Mother's Day gift, there are many other options to consider. For cut flowers, roses are by far the most popular choice. If your mother has a favorite color, by all means, buy her a dozen of that color. Or select the color according to its meaning. Red says, "I love you," pink means gratitude and appreciation and yellow, friendship and joy.

Or how about a bouquet of tulips, daffodils and other spring flowers?

Regardless of what you choose, to extend the life of the flowers, cut the stems under water with a sharp knife or shears. Remove the lower foliage before you put them in water mixed with a floral preservative. Then place in a cool location out of the hot sun. Change the water every few days, recutting the stems each time.

Or give your mother a potted plant, either a flowering houseplant such as an azalea, miniature rose or African violet or one that can be transplanted outside once the weather warms up, such as a rose bush. You also could plant a tree in her honor or a memorial tree if your mother has passed away. If you don't have room in your backyard, call your town office to ask if a tree can be planted in a public park in your mother's name. 

The possibilities to wish your mother a "Happy Mother's Day" are only limited by your imagination.