Mother’s Day is Sunday, May 9th, and all us mamas deserve a day of rest, rejuvenation, and appreciation. While each family has its own traditions, the origin of the holiday is somewhat surprising. The American holiday originated in 1908 by Anna Jarvis, a Philadelphia activist, who created a movement when she sent 500 white carnations to the West Virginian church of her late mother, Ann, to honor her. 

Anna Jarvis’s idea to honor mothers was inspired by her own mother, Ann, who had the idea of commemorating motherhood decades earlier in the mid-19th century. However, Ann’s idea was likely based in community service: evidence suggests that the original idea was for a “Mothers’ Day” (plural) on which mothers would get together for a day of service to help other mothers who were less fortunate.

The reason for the elder Jarvis to focus on service was tragic, as her own motherhood experience had been filled with loss: of the 13 children she bore, only four lived to adulthood. This was not uncommon in the 19th and early 20th century; an estimated 15-30% of infants in that Appalachian region died during that period, largely due to epidemics caused by poor sanitary conditions. In 1858, while she was pregnant for the sixth time, Jarvis enlisted her brother Dr. James Reeves (who was involved in treating typhoid patients) to help improve the situation. They organized events where doctors led discussions with local mothers on hygiene practices that could keep their children healthy. They called the events Mothers’ Day Work Clubs.

Years later, as daughter Anna spread the word about the holiday, she traced it back to the moment when, in 1876, she heard her mother recite a prayer in Sunday school: “I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life.” After her mom died in 1905, she committed herself to fulfilling that dream.

Following the success of her first Mother’s Day in 1908, Jarvis aimed to get her holiday added to the national calendar. She started a letter writing campaign to newspapers and politicians urging the adoption of Mother’s Day, noting that American holidays were skewed toward male achievements.

By 1912 many states and churches had adopted an annual Mother’s Day, and Jarvis had formed the Mother’s Day International Association to promote the cause. Her persistence paid off in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation declaring the second Sunday of May “a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”

Ironically, Anna Jarvis denounced the holiday just a few years later as it became commercialized. She had conceived of Mother’s Day as a day of personal celebration between mothers and families. Her version included wearing a white carnation and spending the day with one’s mother or attending religious services. Once Mother’s Day became a national holiday, however, florists, confectioners, and other retailers capitalized on it.

Jarvis openly campaigned against Mother’s Day profiteering in the coming years, and launched countless lawsuits against groups that used “Mother’s Day” language, eventually spending most of her personal wealth in legal fees. By the time she died in 1948, Jarvis had completely disowned the holiday, even actively lobbying the government for it to be removed from the American calendar.

While surprisingly sad, perhaps their story can serve as a reminder about the intentions that Ann and Anna Jarvis had for the holiday, and prompt us to focus on what’s it all about this Mother’s Day: celebrating the love, service, and selflessness of mothers.