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The history of today’s Mother’s Day celebration is like a rope woven from separate strands and different fibers.

The history of today’s Mother’s Day celebration is like a rope woven from separate strands and different fibers. 
Those fibers extend from ancient Greece and Rome, through Western Europe, across the U.S. women’s movement, up through commercial culture and into churches.

Popular history points to spring celebrations in ancient Greece that honored Rhea, the mother of the gods. The Romans, too, celebrated their mother of gods, Cybele. Some historians also say that early Christians commemorated Mary, the mother of Jesus, in a springtime festival—thus co-opting pre-Christian traditions for their own use. 

As Christianity developed institutionally and came to dominate Western Europe, “Mothering Sunday” evolved for the fourth Sunday of Lent. On this Sunday, Christians returned to their home or “mother church” to worship. This pilgrimage, of sorts, also gave opportunity to visit with families.

There is some hint that the notion of linking the influence of the natural mother and the spiritual mother began to develop here. One of the biblical texts often used for Mothering Sunday is Galatians 4:26: “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” 

A modern focus on mothers appeared with the women’s movement in the United States in the 1800s.


Anna Jarvis, a West Virginia activist, established “Mother’s Work Days” to help improve community life. A better-known movement leader, Julia Ward Howe, was also disturbed by wars and living conditions. She wrote a “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in 1870, which called for a congress of international women to discuss ways to keep the peace. 

But the most direct link to the current incarnation of Mother’s Day is traced to Anna Jarvis’ daughter, also named Anna Jarvis. Upon the elder Jarvis’ death in 1905, the daughter resolved to make her mother’s dream of a day honoring women a reality.

The younger Jarvis thus sponsored the first Mother’s Day service on May 10, 1908, in the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church—her mother’s home church in Grafton, W. Va. 

Though the younger Jarvis was living in Philadelphia at the time, she arranged the service at her “mother church” and had carnations—her mother’s favorite flower—distributed.

“She sent carnations back to this church to be passed out,” Judy Baker, tour guide at the church’s International Mother’s Day Shrine, told “She did that for several years afterward. It’s been picked up and is still being done.” 

In 1910, West Virginia Gov. William Glasscock proclaimed a Mother’s Day for his state. Other states followed, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed a national Mother’s Day for the second Sunday of each May.

Jarvis’ home church began billing itself as the International Mother’s Day Shrine in the early 1960s, said Baker, when a local eye doctor got a committee together to save and restore the church. It now has a monument of a mother and child (added in the 1970s by the retired teachers association). The shrine is open for tours and weddings.  

It also hosts an annual Mother’s Day service on that Sunday afternoon. This year’s service will feature Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia, a school choir and more. Baker estimated around 300 people will fill the church.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for 

Selected Mother’s Day resources on the Web:

Mother’s Day: History of the Celebration 

Mothering Sunday (from the BBC’s Religion and Ethics)

International Mother’s Day Shrine

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