Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mother's Day

Julia Ward Howe
Working in retail as I do, I've been selling cards, books and assorted bric-a-brac nonstop for the last couple of days, so it would be a bit hard for me to miss that Mother's Day is tomorrow, and could hardly fail to note that it is the first one since my mom's death last fall. My mom hated Mother's Day, though, so it was always a bit of a quandary what best to do about it anyway. For one of her early Mother's Days, my dad got her some kind of gift, which annoyed her in the extreme. 'Why did you get me that?' she asked him. 'I'm not your mother!' In later days, he'd buy her a robe or whatever and foist it off as coming from us. Obviously, it was always a bit of a puzzlement how best to deal with the day, though I must say she was never ungracious to any of her kids when it came down to it.

She was a devoted daughter and hardly a resentful mother, so it may be hard to understand her stance from outside. Basically, she resented the commercialization of the day, and the obligatory gift giving required. She always believed that people should do things for others because they wanted to, not out of guilt. I think she may have been a bit naive about certain aspects of human nature in this regard, but I think all in all I still prefer her leniency to its opposite.

A few years ago, though, I learned a few other facts about Mother's Day which are not at all what we think of when the day rolls around now. I think these are the kinds of things she would like to know now, and not wholly disapprove, so in her memory, I refreshed and added to my knowledge of this, and will set it down here.

First of all, Mother's Day is not just a transfer of the English Mothering Day or any of the other celebrations of motherhood that have come down to us from ancient times. English-speaking America originally abolished Mothering Day, not out of any animus toward mothers, but because all holidays, secular and otherwise, came up for review and were abolished or amended in the new, Puritan influenced culture. It wasn't till after the Civil War that Julia Ward Howe, who, though she had written the words for the Battle Hymn of the Republic, had been devastated by the carnage and loss of life that had taken place in the war, attempted to make Mother's Day a day about pacificism. Here's her Mother's Day proclamation of 1870:

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise all women who have hearts,
Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears
Say firmly:

"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of
charity, mercy and patience.

"We women of one country
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says, "Disarm, Disarm!"
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice!
Blood does not wipe out dishonor
Nor violence indicate possession.

As men have of ten forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war.
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions.
The great and general interests of peace.
 Okay, this original Mother's Day didn't fly. But it did set a precedent. It was left to Anna Reeves Jarvis to adapt the idea and start a Mother's Friendship Day in West Virginia, the broader aim of which was the reconciliation of family and friends who had found themselves on opposite sides of the Civil War. It was her daughter, Anna M. Jarvis, who later set about trying to get an official Mother's Day off and running in support of peace and in memory of her mother.

Anna M. Jarvis
The younger Ms. Jarvis then actually quit her job in order to devote herself more completely to the idea of this holiday, and after being taken up by the states, it became an official holiday under Woodrow Wilson in 1914. Not the greatest timing if you want it to be all about peace, but still. Good work, Ms. Jarvis. 
However, things are rarely that simple and certainly not this time. White carnations became the symbol of the holiday, and thus gave the American floral industry a vested interest in keeping the thing going. Not even 10 years after the official National holiday came into existence, the younger Ms. Jarvis was suing to stop a mother's day event, and by the 1930s had actually gotten herself arrested for disturbing the peace at an American War Mothers group.   
As a website called has it:
In opposition to the flower industry’s exploitation of the holiday, Jarvis wrote, “What will you do to route charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations?” Despite her efforts, flower sales on Mother's Day continued to grow. Florist's Review wrote, “Miss Jarvis was completely squelched.”

So you see, my mother's feelings about the whole thing come from a long and noble line of ambivalence. but I can't resist finishing with the above article's last ironic twist:

Anna Jarvis died in 1948, blind, poor and childless. Jarvis would never know that it was, ironically, The Florist's Exchange that had anonymously paid for her care. 

Happy Mother's Day, Mom.

I know--I know...

(Editing this to add a link to Kathleen Kirk's post on the same theme.)


  1. Seana, we both wrote of Julia Ward Howe! My mom and I will be reading this very proclamation in church today. (I will go back and edit my post to link to you, and, by chance, I had mentioned you in another context already!)

    Sending you solace as you think of your mom.

  2. I hope the reading went well, Kathleen.

    It's interesting that this origins of Mother's Day story is fairly well known on one level--it's not exactly hidden history--but it is totally submerged by what the holiday has become.

    I'll edit to include your link as well.

  3. just now read this Seana. I was facinated by Julia Ward Howe's poem.
    I always knew that mom hated flowers on that day, and share that. Except this year Olivia went out to the Bienveneda Front yard and grabbed a few for me, so maybe that's a different story.

    And then we all sat down and watched 3 hours of Shogun....(ahem - )

  4. Gals gotta do what gals gotta do...

    Are you seriously alert enough post op to be commenting here? I am impressed.

    And of course, I don't think Mom ever rejected any Mother's Day gifts from us.

    I remember once, when short on cash, I gave her some salami.

    Hope you've got some good Toshiro flicks on your hard drive for your recovery...