Celebrations of mothers and motherhood can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who held festivals in honor of the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele.
But the clearest modern precedent for Mother’s Day is the early Christian festival known as “Mothering Sunday.”
Once a major tradition in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, this celebration fell on the fourth Sunday in Lent and was originally seen as a time when the faithful would return to their “mother church”—the main church in the vicinity of their home—for a special service.
Over time the Mothering Sunday tradition shifted into a more secular holiday and children would present their mothers with flowers and other tokens of appreciation.
This custom eventually faded in popularity before merging with the American Mother’s Day in the 1930s and 1940s.
The origins of Mother’s Day as celebrated in the United States date back to the 19th century.
In the years before the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia helped start “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to teach local women how to properly care for their children.
These clubs later became a unifying force in a region of the country still divided over the Civil War.
Jarvis organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day” in 1868, at which mothers gathered with former Union and Confederate soldiers to promote reconciliation.
Another precursor to Mother’s Day came from the abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe.
In 1870, Howe wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation.” This was a call to action that asked mothers to unite in promoting world peace.
In 1873, Howe campaigned for a “Mother’s Peace Day” to be celebrated every June 2.
Other early Mother’s Day pioneers include Juliet Calhoun Blakely, a temperance activist who inspired a local Mother’s Day in Albion, Mich., in the 1870s.
The duo of Mary Towles Sasseen and Frank Hering, meanwhile, both worked to organize a Mother’s Day in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some have even called Hering “the father of Mothers’ Day.”
The official Mother’s Day holiday arose in the 1900s as a result of the efforts of Anna Jarvis, daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis. Following her mother’s 1905 death, Anna Jarvis conceived of Mother’s Day as a way of honoring the sacrifices mothers made for their children.
After gaining financial backing from a Philadelphia department store owner named John Wanamaker, in May 1908 she organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, W.Va.
That same day also saw thousands of people attend a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s retail stores in Philadelphia.
Following the success of her first Mother’s Day, Jarvis — who remained unmarried and childless her whole life — resolved to see her holiday added to the national calendar.
Arguing that American holidays were biased toward male achievements, she started a massive letter-writing campaign to newspapers and prominent politicians urging the adoption of a special day honoring motherhood.
By 1912, many states, towns and churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday, and Jarvis had established the Mother’s Day International Association to help promote her cause.
Her persistence paid off in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.
Anna Jarvis had originally conceived of Mother’s Day as a day of personal celebration between mothers and families. Her version of the day involved wearing a white carnation as a badge and visiting one’s mother or attending church services. But once Mother’s Day became a national holiday, it was not long before florists, card companies and other merchants capitalized on its popularity.
While Jarvis had initially worked with the floral industry to help raise Mother’s Day’s profile, by 1920 she had become disgusted with how the holiday had been commercialized.
She outwardly denounced the transformation and urged people to stop buying Mother’s Day flowers, cards and candies.
Jarvis eventually resorted to an open campaign against Mother’s Day profiteers, speaking out against confectioners, florists and even charities. She also launched countless lawsuits against groups that had used the name “Mother’s Day,” eventually spending most of her personal wealth in legal fees. By the time of her death in 1948 Jarvis had disowned the holiday altogether, and even actively lobbied the government to see it removed from the American calendar.
While versions of Mother’s Day are celebrated worldwide, traditions vary depending on the country.
In Thailand, for example, Mother’s Day is always celebrated in August on the birthday of the current queen, Sirikit.
Another alternate observance of Mother’s Day can be found in Ethiopia, where families gather each fall to sing songs and eat a large feast as part of Antrosht, a multi-day celebration honoring motherhood.
In the United States, Mother’s Day continues to be celebrated by presenting mothers and other women with gifts and flowers, and it has become one of the biggest holidays for consumer spending.
Families also celebrate by giving mothers a day off from activities like cooking or other household chores.
At times, Mother’s Day has also been a date for launching political or feminist causes. In 1968 Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., used Mother’s Day to host a march in support of underprivileged women and children. In the 1970s women’s groups also used the holiday as a time to highlight the need for equal rights and access to childcare.