Most of us buy cards or go out for dinner to commemorate Mother's Day, but we rarely realize how far back these celebrations date. Like many other holidays that have been commercialized in modern times, Mother's Day has centuries-old antecedents. Cultures around the world celebrated (and still do) the mother goddess as a representative of nurturing and the giver of all life.
The ancient Egyptians celebrated the mother goddess Isis, while the Greeks celebrated the goddess Rhea, who was the mother of most of the major deities including Zeus. In ancient Rome, Cybele was the major mother figure; and as early as 2250 B.C., the Romans celebrated a festival of Hilaria, which occurred in the spring and was dedicated to the mother goddess. In Taoism, the end of May is celebrated as the "mother of the world" day, recognizing the goddess as the origin of all things. Incense is burned and the focus is on meditating on divine harmony.
During the Middle Ages, people in remote villages attended the main church in their parish -- the "mother" church -- for a special service. In England, a day known as "Mothering Sunday" fell on the fourth Sunday of Lent and was a day when working people were allowed to take time off to go home to visit their mothers.
Calling for Peace and a Respect for All Life
The first North American Mother's Day was actually a call for peace. Julia Ward Howe wrote a proclamation in 1870 that called for mothers to stop their sons from killing the sons of other mothers. She asked for an international Mother's Day of Peace.
Our current Mother's Day was started in 1908 by a West Virginian, Anna Jarvis, to honor her own mother, who held a Mother's Friendship Day in order to bring together families and friends that had been divided during the Civil War. Anna Jarvis gave her mother's favorite flower to every mother who attended. Today, white carnations are used to honor deceased mothers, while pink or red carnations pay tribute to mothers who are still alive. Finally, in 1914 Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day.
Mother's Day Around the World
Many cultures use this day to enjoy traditional dishes that their mothers taught them to cook. In Mexico, a mother is serenaded by her family or a hired band, while in Japan, children enter drawings of their mothers in a contest that celebrates mothers and peace. Sweets and flowers -- especially violets -- are given to moms on Mother's Day in the United Kingdom. There, it is also customary to serve Simnel cake, a glazed fruitcake inspired by a folk tale about a married couple, Simon and Nell.
In addition to flowers, cards, jewelry and chocolates, it is customary for Australians to exchange perfume and teas on Mother's Day. In Canada, there seems to be an added emphasis on helping Mom do chores and cooking her supper. Sweden's Mother's Day, which takes place on the last Sunday in May, has a strong charitable focus: The Swedish Red Cross sells small plastic flowers leading up to the holiday, and the proceeds raised are given to poor mothers and their children. The Native American culture celebrates Mother Earth as our mother and counsels us to take care of her.
A Modern-Day Ritual to Celebrate Your Mother Figure
This Mother's Day, be creative and make an Appreciation Box (adapted from The Joy of Family Rituals). With the changing configuration of families today, we need to also be sure to honor the stepparents, foster parents, godparents and mentors -- both alive and deceased -- who have played an important role in our "mothering" and of the "mothering" of our children.
To make an Appreciation Box you can use a shoebox, hatbox, cigar box, or any kind of container that appeals to you. Decorate it with markers, ribbons, flowers, photographs, beads, feathers, or jewels. Use your imagination. This is great to do as a family project, and can include small children as well as adults.
Place drawings, home-baked cookies, Mom's favorite bath oil, a poem or any other objects and symbols that show love and appreciation for your mother. Write down something that you love about her: "I love the way you bake me banana bread on my birthday," or " I love the way you always see the bright side of life." Also, include written promises to do something special for Mom. A 10-year-old might promise to cook dinner once a month, while a child living out of the home may want to take Mom out for a day of spa delights.
By taking the time to really appreciate your mother, you will be giving her the best gift possible. And let us not forget Mother Earth, who is responsible for the bounty of all of life.