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The History and Tension of Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is an ingrained part of the American world. It is one of the rare holidays that is shared equally both inside and outside the church. So don’t forget to call your mom….

But the history of Mother’s Day is a story worth telling. It’s a funny part of our year, since it both has historic roots in the church and yet also is in some respects a modern invention.

Mothering Sunday

The earliest evidence of the modern Mother’s Day arose in the medieval world. In Britain (and occasionally in other parts of Europe) the fourth Sunday in Lent came to be known as ‘Mothering Sunday’. Today this is celebrated in the UK and Ireland much the same as Mother’s Day in America, but its roots were somewhat different.

The observance of Mothering Sunday originally was an opportunity for Christians to return to their ‘mother church’—where they were baptized, raised, and educated. The folk way of describing this was to say someone was going ‘a-mothering’. Not surprisingly the holiday was infused with great significance due to the honoring of the Virgin Mary, but in this case the focus was more about tying one to their church community. You were to attend your mother church and give thanks for your upbringing.

Naturally the return home allowed for something of a family reunion. Mothering Day thus came to be associated with celebrating your own mother. It became normal to give mothers small gifts in their honor, though in a few occasions there were corporate occasions of the church celebrating all mothers of children.

History of Modern Mother’s Day

The modern version of Mother’s Day in America was founded by Anna Jarvis in the aftermath of the Civil War. Anna was profoundly impacted by her mother, who was something of a hero during the war, tending to soldiers, binding wounds, and feeding the hungry. Many women in the war had served heroically but thanklessly. Anna herself recalls her mother praying that one day mothers would be celebrated for their thankless work.

When her mother passed away in 1905, Anna began to construct an idea for a public day of honor for mothers. Anna was not entirely secular in her aims. Though she often moved around, she was heavily involved in church life, especially at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church (known today as the ‘Mother’s Day Shrine’). It was Anna’s idea at their second gathering for Mother’s Day to hand out white carnations, since they were her mother’s favorite.

The grassroots movement to celebrate mothers quickly picked up steam, and it even enlisted local leaders. By 1910, West Virginia became the first state to ratify the celebration of Mother’s Day, and by 1914 a joint resolution from Congress was approved by Woodrow Wilson to make the second Sunday in May officially Mother’s Day.

The rise in popularity of Mother’s Day is not hard to guess—people love their mothers. But the importance of this holiday could not have been more poignant than it was during the two world wars. Mothers sent their sons off to die, and many mothers worked tirelessly at home or abroad to support the frontline troops in Europe. Those soldiers fortunate enough to make it home found in Mother’s Day a time to celebrate the comforts of the world they had fought to defend.

Tensions in Mother’s Day Today

Today Mother’s Day is celebrated around the world. Churches will hold brunches, thank the mothers of the church, and hold all sorts of ceremonies in honor of the women in their church. Of course, not a few people have urged caution about celebrating only the women in the church who have children, neglecting those unable to have kids or who are unmarried.

Much of this tension comes from the modern context of Mother’s Day. Today Mother’s Day is a corporate thanking of mothers, while in bygone centuries it was simply a time for people to celebrate their mothers (which should not happen only once a year!). It is the public nature of Mother’s Day that gives rise to the problem of exclusion. No one will fault a daughter for loving her mother or a son for giving a gift to mom.

The problem comes when the celebration is done collectively by the pastor, creating the problem of wounding those who are not themselves mothers. And so people today are urging caution when dealing with Mother’s Day on Sunday. Others avoid it altogether. This is not mere politically correct nonsense, as the public holiday itself has been around only a few generations.

Perhaps a way forward is to recover some of the older tradition and encourage children to go ‘a-mothering’ a bit more often. Brunches and carnations are great, but it seems the biblical pattern of honoring our parents is not to allow one holiday to stand in for the thanks we should give our mothers on a regular basis. Mothers should be thanked, but they should be thanked most by their own children.

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