Mother’s Day is a holiday honoring motherhood that is observed in different forms throughout the world. It isn’t a new holiday, in fact the earliest Mother’s Day celebrations can be traced back to the spring celebrations of ancient Greece in honor of Rhea, the mother of the gods. People would make offerings of honey-cakes, fine drinks, and flowers at dawn.

The Romans also had a mother of all gods, Magna Mater, or Great Mother. A temple was built in Rome for her. In March of each year, there was a celebration in her honor called the Festival of Hilaria. Gifts were brought to the temple to please the powerful mother-goddess.

During the 1600s, England celebrated “Mothering Sunday” on the fourth Sunday of Lent (the 40 days leading up to Easter) as a way to honor the mothers of England. Many of England’s poor lived and worked as servants for the wealthy, far away from their homes and families. On Mothering Sunday, servants were given the day off to return home and spend the day with their mothers. A special cake, called the “mothering cake,” was often baked to add to the festivities.

The official observance of Mother’s Day in its present form is credited to Anna Jarvis (1864-1948) of Philadelphia, PA. She wanted to honor the memory of her mother, Mrs. Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, who died in 1905.

After gaining financial backing from a Philadelphia department store owner named John Wanamaker, in May 1908 she organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. That same day also saw thousands of people attend a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s retail stores in Philadelphia.

Following the success of her first Mother’s Day, Jarvis—who remained unmarried and childless her whole life—resolved to see her holiday added to the national calendar. Arguing that American holidays were biased toward male achievements, she started a massive letter-writing campaign to newspapers and prominent politicians urging the adoption of a special day honoring motherhood.

By 1912 many states, towns and churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday, and Jarvis had established the Mother’s Day International Association to help promote her cause. Her persistence paid off in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Today, Mother’s Day is celebrated (officially and unofficially) in dozens of countries, although on different dates.

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