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A Far Cry from Peace

A Far Cry from Peace

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Let’s explore the real origins of Mother’s Day, observed yesterday. Not at all what you have been led to believe.

Mother’s Day began in the United States in the early 20th century. It’s only indirectly related to the many traditional celebrations of fertility, maternity, and motherhood that have persisted globally over thousands of years, from the Greek worship of Cybele, to the Roman adoration of Rhia, and the Christian venerations of Mary. In fact, the most ancient traditions and representations are prehistoric, the Willendorf Venus, for example; they are all of a Great Goddess, a mother divinity, a fertility immortal, giving birth to the world in various forms — and to this day in the mountains of southern Spain, village women still kneel and murmur their Christian rosaries facing the full moon. Easter itself is derived from the name of the fertility goddess Oestre —hence all those eggs and rabbits, and also the root word for estrogen (a wee etymological aside there).

Meanwhile, back here in the so-called developed world, we are reduced to banal Hallmark kitsch. But it wasn’t always that way.

In 1907, Anna Jarvis held a memorial service for her mother at Saint Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. Her campaign to make Mother’s Day a recognized holiday in the United States had begun two years earlier, when her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, had died. Ann Reeves Jarvis had been a women’s suffragist and a peace activist who tended to both Northern and Southern wounded soldiers during and after the Civil War. She also had created Mother’s Day Work Clubs to address public-health issues, and she and Julia Ward Howe, another suffragette, abolitionist, and peace activist (then as now the issues usually overlapped), began working together. Julia Ward Howe, a poet and author of the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” had been urging the creation of a Mother’s Day dedicated to peace for almost 50 years before it became an official holiday. She had first made her Mother’s Day proclamation as early as 1870, calling on mothers of all nationalities to band together and promote “the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.” In 1907, Anna Jarvis still wanted to honor this intention of her two foremothers.

But in 1908 the US Congress rejected the proposal to make Mother’s Day an official holiday, joking ho ho ho that they would then have to proclaim a mothers-in-law day. Nevertheless, because of Anna Jarvis’s dogged persistence, by 1911 all US states observed the holiday, with some officially recognizing it as a local holiday. In 1914, then President Woodrow Wilson (no friend of women’s suffrage) signed a proclamation designating Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May as a national holiday.

Anna Jarvis herself was furious at the commercialization of the day. As early as the 1920s. Hallmark Cards and other businesses had started marketing merchandise. Anna believed they were exploiting the concept (you think?!), that the holiday was not about profit, but about peace and political activism. So she organized boycotts and threatened lawsuits against the companies involved. She protested at the candy makers convention in Philadelphia and at a meeting of American War Mothers in 1925, where she was arrested for disturbing the peace by protesting the selling of carnations by the War Mothers to raise money for their group. Sadly, it seems she lost the battle.

Internationally, concerns emerged about the exclusivity of Mother’s Day having a biological definition of motherhood. Constance Adelaide Smith took to advocating for Mothering Sunday as an equivalent, referring to traditions like “mother church” and “mother nature”; her efforts succeeded in the British Isles and other parts of the English-speaking world.

Some countries, Russia for example, celebrate March 8, International Women’s Day, instead of Mother’s Day, or celebrate both holidays, as they do in Ukraine. International Women’s Day is increasing in status internationally (although apparently men still get the other 365 days of the year). But much of the Muslim world, from Egypt and Iraq through Palestine and Saudi Arabia, still celebrates Mother’s Day, though doing so on March 21, the spring Equinox — hearkening back to its ancient fertility roots. In Armenia, April 7 marks—wait for it—Motherhood and Beauty Day. South Korea recognizes Parents’ Day on May 8, and a handful of countries, including France and Sweden, mobilize for mothers in a somewhat contorted fashion: on the last Sunday of May or sometimes the first Sunday of June if the last Sunday of May is Pentecost. But most of the rest of the world falls in step the second Sunday of May—all that remains of Anna Jarvis’s original plan—although not everyone engages in a spending frenzy rivaling Christmas, as the United States does.

The day has birthed its own progeny, such as Mothers-in-Law Day, Stepmother’s Day, Grandmother’s Day, Adoptive Mother’s Day, Daughter’s Day, Son’s Day, Sibling’s Day, and even Child-Free Day. That last is a feminist one, but the rest are Hallmark Holidays all. Whatever the market will bear.

Yet interestingly, despite herculean efforts by businesses and corporations to shove especially Father’s Day down our throats for an equal purchasing orgy, Father’s Day lags way way way behind. Heh heh heh.

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