Inevitably, I am asked by my children about the history and origins of holidays that we celebrate. They are relieved when I label a holiday a”hallmark” holiday because they do not feel obligated to participate with gifts. As expected, the question came, of how we would be celebrating Mother’s Day this year–and as I gave the rehearsed “hallmark” label, I realized I didn’t really know how Mother’s Day began. After investigation, I realize that the person who pressed for the holiday to begin with, also spent her life fighting the commercialization of the holiday–in particular the influence of the greeting cards that replaced a heartfelt letter.

Anna Jarvis house–on the historic register of historic places

Anna Jarvis was credited with convincing president Wilson to make Mother’s Day a national holiday in America. Her mother was a social activist who founded Mother’s Day work clubs, and thus inspired her daughter to establish a holiday in honor of her service to humanity. Also, she may have been influenced by the English holiday which was established in the 1600’s, or the tradition going back to antiquity during which ancient societies held celebrations honoring mother gods — such as the Greek “Mother of all Goddesses” Rhea.


Rhea, the Greek goddess mother

Jarvis receives some criticism for her extreme views on the holiday, partly because she sent five hundred white carnations to a memorial service to honor all mothers. As she couldn’t attend, she sent the carnations and a note describing their significance becoming an easy symbol for marketers. In a bit of strange hypocrisy, she would go on to fight against Mother’s Day carnations and flower sales.

Anna Jarvis, the American credited with the beginning of mothers day

Mother’s Day may not have started as a “hallmark” holiday but the commercialization of the holiday was quickly embraced by the greeting card, floral and confection industries. Childless herself, she poured all her money and time into fighting these forces overpowering the holiday she founded–even at one point having over twenty lawsuits. She once said, “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”

I have to agree with that idea. Greeting cards seem to me as a symptom of a much larger societal problem–our own sentiments crafted and sold to us. We are in an age of quick and simplified communication, the idea of a handwritten note almost an artifact itself. The process of writing a letter is so much more than buying a card, and something completely unique and personal is created. A letter is a gift that would make Jarvis proud by honoring her original intention for the holiday.

More than one-hundred million Mother’s Day cards are exchanged this holiday–keeping pace with Valentine’s day and Christmas. Personally, I will embrace Jarvis’s sentiments towards commercialization–an easy sell for me. I will hand write a note to my mother with my favorite pen, forcing myself to think about all the ways I am grateful and choosing my paper with care. I appreciate the sentiment Jarvis wanted to honor, “the best mother who ever lived — your mother” even if the holiday got away from her in the end, and ultimately was the end of her. She died in a sanitarium, broke and alone from her lifetime of struggle against the commercialization of what she saw as her holiday. I will think of her struggle as I pen my gift and forgo the flowers, sorry mother!