Mother's Day : History and Traditions

Mother's Day : History & Traditions
Origins of the Modern Celebration
Goddesses and Saints : Mothers of Us All

Mother's Day History: Origin of the Modern Celebration

Mother's Day . . . Few of us are more than dimly aware of the history of our modern celebration of these extraordinary women. You can perhaps recall enough of the history of Mother's Day to know that it originated in the hills of Appalachia and is now celebrated in countries throughout the world. What you may not realize is that the founder of Mother's Day eventually confessed that she regretted ever starting the tradition.

In the United States, Mother's Day originated nearly 150 years ago, when Anna Jarvis, an Appalachian homemaker, organized a "Mother's Work Day" to raise awareness of poor economic and health conditions affecting the children in her community, a cause she believed would be best advocated by mothers.

Fifteen years later, Julia Ward Howe, a pacifist, suffragist, and author of the lyrics to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," proposed an annual event called Mother's Day, but the idea received little support. She organized a day encouraging mothers to rally for peace, since she believed they bore the loss of human life more harshly than anyone else. 

When Anna Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter (also named Anna) wished to create a memorial to her mother's work and began a campaign to institute an official  holiday to honor mothers. The first Mother's Day observance was a church service honoring Anna's mother and all mothers that Anna arranged. She supplied the decorations for the service -- white carnations, her mother's favorite flowers, chosen because they represent sweetness, purity, and endurance. Today the white flowers signify that one's mother has died and red carnations in time became the symbol of a living mother.

Of Goddesses and Saints

The concept of Mother Earth arose centuries later in Greece. In the 7th century BCE, the poet Hesiod gave the "deep-breasted" earth mother the name Gaea, she who "gave birth" to the sky, sea, and mountains, as well as the ruling gods called the Titans. A few centuries later, Gaea's daughter Rhea, was honored each year with festivals called "Hilaria". The festivities lasted for three days and by all accounts were great family entertainment, with revelers bringing

And here the stage was set for one of the great struggles of all time, a battle that the classicist Robert Graves described as one between the pagan Goddess and the Hebrew and Christian God. Known as the Magna Mater (Great Mother), Cybele was widely honored. Her worship, however, was associated with some rather repellent rituals that eventually led to the banishment of her followers from Rome, gravely weakening the goddess religions.

Graves notes that the Christian church declared war on the White Goddess, also known as the Triple Goddess, the ancient European deity who appeared as the new, full, and old moons, representing "The Female Goddess of Birth, Love and Death". The Christian Trinity, said Graves, eventually triumphed over the trinity of the Goddess. The Western male conquered the Eastern and agricultural female. 

In victory, the patriarchal Holy Roman Catholic Church subsumed and welcomed its former opponents by calling itself  ''Mother Church.'' A new variation of Mother's Day, was put in place, this time in honor of the church itself. On the fourth Sunday in Lent, people brought gifts to the church where they had been baptized. This custom changed during late Medieval times when many children had to move away from home in order to find work and were only allowed one holiday a year, and it was on this fourth Sunday that the children went home to see their mothers. Thus the custom of "Mothering Sunday" was begun.

Similarly, in the Celtic countries and the British Isles, the powerful goddess Brigit was transformed into her Christian successor, St. Brigid. Brigit's sacred day, which was connected with the ewes coming into milk, became St. Brigid's Day. Though formal mother worship was never completely eliminated in the British Isles, by the 17th century Mother's Day had been almost completely submerged into Mothering Day. Not surprisingly, with the disappearance of a female deity, the devotion to Mary, Mother of Jesus, would soon emerge as the new Mother cult.

Mothers of Us All

However far away from its origins the celebration has migrated, Mother's Day is still much more than just a “Hallmark® holiday”. And certainly more than remembering to send a card and flowers as Mother's Day gifts, or hanging out with the family.  More, even, than expressing gratitude for the instrument by which you came to be.

It is an opportunity to recognize that we are part of something universal, that we are all sons and daughters of this earth, connected, with the same blood flowing in our veins, and the same needs and desires calling out to our hearts. It is about honoring each other, and seeking the spark of Divinity which resides in each and every one of us.

Though now commercialized, Mother's Day reminds us that we ought to take pause to appreciate the triumph and ferocity of motherhood that lies beneath the holiday's sweet surface.

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