The Origin of Mother’s Day: 5 Surprising Facts About the Holiday

Written by Alesandra Dubin: April 2023

For many people, Mother’s Day is simply a joyous occasion each May, a time to spend with our children and our mothers — marked by flowers, cards, and maybe some mimosas over brunch. So you might be surprised to learn that its cheerful greeting card messages belie a much darker, more complicated origin story. In fact, Mother’s Day traces its roots back to wartime traumas, and includes plenty of controversy. Here are five surprising facts you may not have known about Mother’s Day and its complex origins.

Mother’s Day officially began as a tribute to one woman.

Anna Reeves Jarvis is most often credited with founding Mother’s Day. After her mother Ann (pictured here) died on May 9, 1905, Jarvis set out to create a day that would honor her and moms as a group. She began the movement in West Virginia, which prides itself on hosting the first official Mother’s Day celebration three years later at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, according to CNN. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill recognizing Jarvis’ idea as a national holiday to be celebrated each second Sunday in May.

But before that, Mother’s Day started as an anti-war movement.

Although Jarvis is widely credited as the holiday’s founder, others had floated the idea earlier — with a different agenda in mind, according to National Geographic. The poet and author Julia Ward Howe (pictured here) had aimed to promote a Mothers’ Peace Day decades before. For her and the antiwar activists who agreed with her position — including Jarvis’ own mother — the idea of Mother’s Day should spread unity across the globe in the wake of so much trauma following the Civil War in America and Franco-Prussian War in Europe.

“Howe called for women to gather once a year in parlors, churches, or social halls, to listen to sermons, present essays, sing hymns or pray if they wished — all in the name of promoting peace,” West Virginia Wesleyan College historian Katharine Antolini noted, as cited by National Geographic.

These early attempts to create a cohesive peace-focused Mother’s Day eventually receded when the other concept took hold.

Mother’s Day is a $25 billion commercial holiday.

These days, Mother’s Day is a $25 billion holiday in America, with those who celebrate spending about $200 on mom, according to National Retail Federation data published in 2019.

More people buy flowers for Mother’s Day than any other time of year except during the Christmas and Hanukkah season. Gift givers spend more than $5 billion on jewelry alone, and nearly another $5 billion on that special outing. Then there’s $843 million on cards, and $2.6 billion each on flowers and gift certificates, according to the data.

Jarvis died regretting her idea for this very reason.

Commercialism is the exact opposite of what Jarvis (pictured here) would have wanted: In her lifetime, she went after florists’ aggressive marketing, eventually facing arrests for public disturbances, according to CNN. She also railed against first Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for interpreting Mother’s Day inclusively as a way to promote the wellbeing of women and children at large. She didn’t even believe in organizations using the occasion as a way to raise funds for charity; she didn’t trust the purity of their efforts and saw them as profiteering off the holiday.

“To have Mother’s Day the burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift day that Christmas and other special days have become, is not our pleasure,” she said in 1920, according to Nat Geo. “If the American people are not willing to protect Mother’s Day from the hordes of money schemers that would overwhelm it with their schemes, then we shall cease having a Mother’s Day — and we know how.”

Jarvis herself never profited from her idea. In 1948, at the age of 84, she died penniless — having used all her money to fight the holiday’s commercialization — in a sanitarium.

The white carnation is the official Mother’s Day flower.

The white carnation became the official flower of the holiday shortly after Jarvis’ own mother died. On May 10, 1908 — three years after that loss — Jarvis sent 500 white carnations to Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in her mother’s honor for that first Mother’s Day celebration, according to Time.

Jarvis compared that flower’s shape and life cycle to a mother’s love. “The carnation does not drop its petals, but hugs them to its heart as it dies, and so too, mothers hug their children to their hearts, their mother love never dying,” she said in a 1927 interview, cited in Nat Geo.

So if you’re buying flowers for mom this year, consider the white carnation — but also pause to consider the holiday’s uncommercial origins. After all, it’s not about flowers, or cards, or gift cards, or jewelry — it’s all about love.