Mother’s Day: The International Story

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When you think of Mother’s Day, what comes to mind? Pretty cards, spring bouquets, breakfast in bed? While this memorable day is intrinsically associated with a marking of motherhood, that has not always been the case traditionally. With Mother’s Day approaching in just a few days, THE STYLE EDIT looks back at its origins and how we came to celebrate our beloved mothers worldwide.

When is Mother’s Day?
Mother’s Day always falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent, exactly three weeks before Easter Sunday and usually in the second half of March or early April. This year it is celebrated on Sunday the 11th of March.

Mother’s Day, Mothers’ Day or Mothering Sunday?
When we use ‘Mother’s Day’ we are adopting the American name, although over the years this has now become the widely used term in the UK also.

The title of the day has been widely debated and many disagree on whether the apostrophe in Mother’s Day should be placed before or after the ‘s’. Those who argue the apostrophe should fall after the ‘s’ say the day is a celebration of all mothers and the punctuation should reflect that.

However in 1912, social activist Anna Jarvis trademarked the term ‘Mother’s Day’ – explaining that the word should “be a singular possessive, for each family to honor its own mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world”.

When did Mothering Sunday begin?
The day is a celebration of mothers and the maternal bond, however in more recent times it also recognises other maternal figures such as stepmothers, mothers-in-law and grandmothers. For centuries, the original tradition held was that people returned home to their families and their ‘mother’ church on ‘Laetare Sunday’ – the middle of Lent. Those who followed this tradition were said to have gone ‘a-mothering’. This occasion was turned into an opportunity for a family reunion, offering children that worked away from home – often as domestic servants – to spend quality time with their mothers. They would collect wildflowers to display in the church or to gift to their mothers on arrival home.

However, it was American activist Anna Jarvis (1864 – 1948) from West Virginia, who lobbied the government for an official day to honour mothers in the United States. Jarvis dedicated her life to the cause after committing to do so after her mother, Ann’s (founder of Mothers’ Day Work Clubs) death, on the 9th of May 1905. Exactly three years after her mother’s death, Jarvis held a memorial ceremony to honour her and all mothers, at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, marking the first official observance of Mother’s Day.

Social activist Anna Jarvis

The concept of a ‘Mothers’ Day’ spread to the UK when vicar’s daughter Constance Adelaide Smith from Nottinghamshire was inspired by a newspaper article on Anna Jarvis. In 1914, US President Woodrow Wilson made a proclamation establishing the second Sunday of May as the official date for the observance of a national day to celebrate mothers. Smith linked this concept to the Mothering Sunday and in turn published a booklet, ‘The Revival of Mothering Sunday’, in 1920. Smith went on to establish a movement to promote Mothering Sunday, collecting and publishing information about the day and its traditional observance throughout the UK. The movement established Mothering Sunday as a widely recognised day throughout the British Empire.

President Woodrow Wilson

By 1938, Mothering Sunday had become a popular celebration with Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and various parishes across Britain. By the 1950s it was being celebrated throughout the UK and it wasn’t long before businesses recognised the possible commercial opportunities, leading to the version of Mother’s Day we now celebrate today.

How do other countries celebrate Mother’s Day?

In Japan Mother’s Day is also observed on the second Sunday in May. Children greet their mothers with “Haha-no-hi” and gift them with spring carnations, representing life and the gentle strength of the mother figure. The Japanese tradition of Mother’s Day derives from the Showa period when Mother’s Day served as a commemoration of the birthday of Empress Kojun (the mother of Emperor Akihito).

French Mother’s Day or ‘Fête des Mères’ in France is celebrated in late May or early June, depending on when Pentecost falls. Fête des Mères became an official French calendar date in 1950.

Switzerland, Germany + Austria
Throughout Switzerland, Germany and Austria, Mother’s Day, aka ‘Muttertag’, takes place on the second Sunday in May. During the First World War, Switzerland became one of the first European countries to introduce Mother’s Day, with their first celebration in 1917. Germany’s first Muttertag took place in 1922, while Austria’s first celebration was in 1926. For all three countries, Mother’s Day is a day to demonstrate gratitude.

Much like many other countries, in Peru Mother’s Day is marked with the giving of gifts, cards and flowers. Taking place on the second Sunday in May, a unique aspect of Peruvian Mother’s Day celebrations is that thousands of people gather at local cemeteries to honour all of the mothers who have passed away.

In Ethiopia Mother’s Day is honoured with a three day celebration called ‘Antrosht’. This festival which takes place at the end of autumn, not only celebrates Ethiopian mothers, but also marks the end of the rain season. Antrosht is a huge party with families coming together to sing, dance and enjoy a traditional feast.


Eve Brannon, Features Editor

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