Sunday, 10 May 2009


“Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.” - William Makepeace Thackeray

For Art Sunday today, here is Mary Cassatt’s “The Child’s Caress” (ca 1890. Oil on canvas. Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu).

Mother’s Day is centuries old and the earliest Mother’s Day celebrations can be traced back to the spring celebrations of ancient Greece in honour of Rhea, the Mother of the Gods. The early Christians in England celebrated a day to honour Mary, the mother of Christ. By a religious order the holiday was later expanded in its scope to include all mothers, and named as the “Mothering Sunday”. Celebrated on the 4th Sunday of Lent (the 40 day period leading up to Easter), Mothering Sunday honoured the mothers of England.

During this time many of the England’s poor worked as servants for the wealthy. As most jobs were located far from their homes, the servants would live at the houses of their employers. On Mothering Sunday, the servants would have the day off and were encouraged to return home and spend the day with their mothers. A special cake, called the mothering cake, was often brought along to provide a festive touch.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe the celebration changed to honour the “Mother Church” - the spiritual power that gave them life and protected them from harm. Over time the church festival blended with the Mothering Sunday celebration. People began honouring their mothers as well as the church. With the passage of time, the practice of this tradition ceased slowly. The English colonists settled in America discontinued the tradition of Mothering Sunday because of lack of time.

In the United States, Mother’s Day was loosely inspired by the British day and was first suggested after the American Civil War by social activist Julia Ward Howe. Howe (who wrote the words to the Battle hymn of the Republic) was horrified by the carnage of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War and so, in 1870, she tried to issue a manifesto for peace at international peace conferences in London and Paris (it was much like the later Mother’s Day Peace Proclamation). In 1872, she went to London to promote an international Woman's Peace Congress. She began promoting the idea of a "Mother's Day for Peace" to be celebrated on June 2, honoring peace, motherhood and womanhood. It was due to her efforts that in 1873, women in 18 cities in America held a Mother's Day for Pace gathering. Howe rigorously championed the cause of official celebration of Mothers Day and declaration of official holiday on the day. She held meetings every year at Boston on Mother's Peace Day and took care that the day was well-observed. The celebrations died out when she turned her efforts to working for peace and women's rights in other ways.

It should be remembered that Howe's idea was influenced by Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, a young Appalachian homemaker who, starting in 1858, had attempted to improve sanitation through what she called “Mothers Friendship Day”. In the 1900's, at a time when most women devoted their time solely on their family and homes, Jarvis was working to assist in the healing of the nation after the Civil War. She organized women throughout the Civil War to work for better sanitary conditions for both sides and in 1868 she began work to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors. Ann was instrumental in saving thousands of lives by teaching women in her Mothers Friendship Clubs the basics of nursing and sanitation which she had learned from her famous physician brother James Reeves, M.D.

In most countries, Mother’s Day is a recent tradition derived from the holiday as it has evolved in North America and Europe. Many African countries adopted the idea of one Mother's Day from the British observance, although there are many festivals and events celebrating mothers within the many diverse cultures on the African continent that long pre-date colonization.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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