What many may think fuels Mother’s Day today is what seems to have fueled one woman to crusade for its creation – and then its destruction. Guilt.
Never a mother herself, the “mother” of Mother’s Day, Miss Anna Jarvis, ninth of eleven children, clung to every word and act of her own mother Mrs. Annemarie Jarvis. In 1876, Mrs. Jarvis was teaching Sunday school at St. Andrew Methodist Church in the family’s hometown of Grafton, West Virginia on “Mothers of the Bible,” when she declared to her students, including then 12-year old Anna, “I hope that someone, sometime will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.”
Anna soon left her family in Grafton, to attend college in Virginia and then find work in Philadelphia. Following her father’s death, her mother finally relocated there, where she died in 1905. When the Grafton church informed her they were planning a special memorial service for her late mother, it upset Anna, who later admitted to feeling that she, like all children, had not shown enough appreciation for her mother while she was alive. As Mrs. Jarvis’s coffin was being lowered into the ground, Anna suddenly recalled her mother’s lesson entirely verbatim, from twenty-six years earlier and blurted out, “By the grace of God, you shall have that Mother’s Day!”
Unrelenting, Anna lectured in church and town halls and stirred up like-minded ladies to lobby by letter every governor until the anniversary of her mother’s death on the second Sunday in May was set aside so everyone could write, call or visit their mothers in thanks for all they’d done. Within three years, she had succeeded in having Mother’s Day recognized by the states – but she wouldn’t stop until it was made a national holiday.
Luckily for her there was a powerful man who felt likewise about his mom some 25 years after her death, declaring, “She was one of the most remarkable persons I have ever known. I thank God for such a mother!” Luckily that man was President Woodrow Wilson.
By some accounts, British-born Jessie Janet Woodrow was a hypochondriac who not only fretted over her son’s sniffles, but kept him so close he didn’t go to a school until he was ten. Whether or not it was her spirit that was guiding his World War I military strategy, at the time, Wilson wrote a friend in September 1917, “I seem to feel still the touch of her hand, and the sweet, steadying influence of her wonderful character.” Like Jarvis, Wilson had been the worse for wear when his mother died, in 1888. As he wrote his wife at the time:
“Oh the infinite pity and bitterness of it…my heart is filling up with the tenderest memories of my sweet mother, memories that seem to hallow my whole life….My mother, with her sweet womanliness, her purity, her intelligence, her strength….I remember how I clung to her (a laughed-at ‘Mamma’s boy;) till I was a great big fellow; but love of the best womanhood came to my heart through those apron-strings.”
What angle Anna used to woe Woodrow was unknown, but it was perhaps no accident she’d gone to college in the town where he was born and his mother had lived, Staunton, Virginia.
Without need for reflective deliberation, President established Mother’s Day so each citizen would honor their own beloved mater. “Without my mother,” Wilson declared, “what would I have been!”
Thrilled to achieve what she said was merely her mother’s wish, Anna Jarvis began insisting that everyone also especially remember her mother wearing the late Mrs. Jarvis’s favorite flower, the carnation.
Unwittingly, that decision would prove one push too far.
Commercial florists made hay while the May sun shined. It wasn’t long before the white carnation intended for those with dead mothers and red carnations for those whose moms still lived had grown into full-basket bouquets, and the little cards with the baskets become large greeting cards with sentimental rhapsodies on motherhood. A lot of money was made fast on the second Sunday of each spring. Soon enough, the smarter floral outlets tossed old Mrs. Jarvis’s beloved carnations for the snappier commercial sell – attaching seed packets for those smelly big yellow flowers, as in “Mums for Mum.”
By 1923, Miss Jarvis was back. She had changed her mind. In less than a decade Mother’s Day had nearly reached the top holiday bonanza for merchandisers. That only Christmas edged it out is all the more astounding since Mother’s Day gifts were always smaller-ticket items, like embroidered change purses, silver eyeglass chains, quilted toaster covers, knitting needles, “Mother dearest” rings, single teacup-saucer sets, and wall plaques with sentimental verse on the value of Mothers against vaguely Maxfield Parish scenarios.
It all hit poor Miss Jarvis with even sharper pangs of guilt. She had intended Mother’s Day to be marked by sentimental Sunday services. And President Wilson had set it aside for flag-flying. Amid the din of the dizzy Jazz Age, however, the shrieks of horror from Miss Jarvis were drowned by the clang of cash registers.
With the same determination she used to create Mother’s Day, she now crusaded to destroy it. The second Sunday in May now symbolized for her a government-sanctioned exploitation of Mothers. For the next 25 years, Anna Jarvis railed against Mother’s Day, lecturing from pulpits, buying radio time, and taking out newspaper ads, ranting to anyone who would listen that the holiday had become “out of control.” In fact, it seems, she had.
More than the flowers, it seemed that the printed greeting cards is what infuriated her, assailing those who sent them as being “too lazy” to pen a sweet cursive-written love letter home to their moms. Anna became so violent an anti-Mother’s Day activist she was arrested in 1948 for “disturbing the peace.”
On November 24, six months after her arrest, 84-year old Anna Jarvis died. It is unknown whether her demise was provoked by being thrown in jail or having gone bankrupt in her obsession to smother the life out of Mother’s Day.
To that end, she had spent almost literally the last dollar she had inherited from, who else?
Her efforts to destroy the holiday she helped to create, however, entirely failed. And that, surely, would have greatly disappointed….uh…never mind.