Mother's Day creator likely 'spinning in her grave'

Louisa Taylor , Canwest News Service

Published: Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pity the mother of Mother's Day.        

Anna Jarvis - never married, never a mother - campaigned for almost a decade to dedicate a day to honour mothers. She chose a Sunday because she wanted it to be a "holy" day, not a holiday, and the second Sunday in May because it was the anniversary of the death of her own beloved mother.

Jarvis wanted us to show our mothers how much their devotion and sacrifice matters, how we esteem the "truth, purity and broad charity of mother love." She expected us to do it with simple gestures - in her opinion, a single white carnation and a heartfelt letter were best. Her carnations were handed out at the first Mother's Day ceremony exactly 100 years ago.

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And look at how we repaid her.

Throughout the decades, the "holy" day has evolved into a retailing and marketing bonanza, each year becoming more and more a chance to spend money rather than time or effort, until we arrive at today, when retailers can, with a straight face, suggest you "show Mom you care" by buying their platinum charm bracelet, their "Thanks A Bunch" floral arrangement, or their discounted patio furniture (nothing says filial love like a powder-coated aluminum table you scored for 50 per cent off).

"I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit," Jarvis complained, dismissing greeting cards as "a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write."

Anna Jarvis wasn't too lazy to write letters. They were the greatest weapon in her campaign to create Mother's Day.

According to Katharine Antolini, historian and board member at the International Mother's Day Shrine in Grafton, West Virginia - site of the first ceremony in 1908 - legend has it that a 12-year-old Anna overheard her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, tell her Sunday school class of her wish for a day to commemorate mothers for their contribution to all fields of life. The elder Jarvis was well-known in Grafton for her charity work with local mothers and her efforts to use motherhood as a healing tool for the community divided by the Civil War.

When Ann Reeves Jarvis died in 1905, Anna began her campaign for a Mother's Day, tirelessly writing letters to politicians, businessmen and religious leaders. She even enlisted the backing of retail giant John Wanamaker, who financially supported her campaign.

By 1908 she had succeeded in arranging two ceremonies for Mother's Day: a large one in the auditorium of Wanamaker's Philadelphia store, at which she spoke, and another one at her mother's church in Grafton. She sent 500 white carnations to be distributed to mothers in the congregation.

The idea became a movement, and the following year, Mother's Day services were held in 45 American states and Canada and Mexico, the symbol of the white carnation already entrenched.

Still, Jarvis wanted more: she wanted a national proclamation. She continued her lobbying, sending letters year after year to the governors of every state reminding them to make the proclamation.

Unusual for a middle-class woman at the turn of the last century, Jarvis had worked in the advertising department of a life insurance company and "she knew a thing or two about marketing and copyright," says Antolini, who is writing her PhD dissertation on Anna Jarvis.

In 1912, Jarvis incorporated her own association, trademarked the white carnation and the phrases "second Sunday in May" and "Mother's Day". She was specific about the location of the apostrophe; it was to be a singular possessive, for each family to honour their mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world.

Finally, in 1914, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation calling for the observance of Mother's Day. Other countries followed, including Canada, which made it official the following year.

It was quickly apparent to Jarvis that she had created a monster. Greeting cards became a popular way to say thank you to Mother, photographers advertised Mother's Day portraits and sales of chocolates and candies spiked every year in May.

You might think it would be enough to make her weep, but Anna Jarvis was made of sterner stuff. She threatened to sue.

"How many of these suits made it into court, we don't know," says Antolini. "But she was fearless. She would write letters to anyone she felt was misusing Mother's Day and remind them that she owned the copyright."

She nursed long-running feuds about who was the true founder of Mother's Day, and was criticized for ignoring the work of poet Julia Ward Howe, who had instigated a Mother's Day for Peace, observed in June, decades before Jarvis began her campaign. She would protest wherever she felt wronged, even in the store belonging to John Wanamaker, who had been so crucial to the success of her crusade.

An assistant told a story about going to the tea room at Wanamaker's store one year at Mother's Day. When Jarvis noticed a 'Mother's Day Salad' on the menu, "she ordered it, dumped it on the floor, got up and left," says Antolini.

In 1923, Jarvis threatened to sue New York Governor Al Smith over his plans for a large Mother's Day celebration. She clashed with the American War Mothers Association over their use of Mother's Day in their fundraising campaigns, so they dropped the apostrophe.

She even attacked Eleanor Roosevelt in 1935, accusing the First Lady of "crafty plotting" to abuse Mother's Day by using it in fundraising material for charities trying to combat high maternal and infant mortality rates, "the expectant mother racket," as Jarvis called them.

This is where her own mother would have disagreed with Anna Jarvis's vision of Mother's Day, says Antolini.

"Anna, who was never a mother, saw motherhood through the eyes of a child - she celebrated the reigning force in the household, the one who gave life and was the centre of your world as a kid.

"Her mother envisioned motherhood beyond the traditional sphere, and wanted it honoured for the way mothers improved the community.

"Anna had her vision, her mother had another, the florists and the politicians had another," says Antolini. "Perhaps it's so successful because it's open to continual reinterpretation. I think that's the beauty of it, although Anna is probably spinning in her grave at that thought."

Indeed, Jarvis spent her considerable inheritance and the rest of her life fighting the commercialization of "her" holiday. It was a losing battle. Anna Jarvis died in 1948, bitter, blind, partially deaf and completely penniless in a Pennsylvania mental institution.

So on this Mother's Day, 100 years after it all began, think of the Jarvis women. Think of Anna, and make a donation in your mother's name to an organization that supports mothers in all their endeavours.

Or give Anna Jarvis what she fought so hard to create - a day with no shopping, no donations, no greeting cards. Sit down with a pen and a piece of paper, and write a love letter to your mother. Tell her what she means to you, what you love about her. Don't fret if words aren't really your thing - she already knows that, and will value the effort all the more.

If it's too late - if the brunch is done and the shrink-wrap is already off the patio furniture - write the letter anyway.

Which do you think your mother will treasure for the rest of her days? It won't be the patio furniture.

Ottawa Citizen


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