Honoring Our Mothers, Warts & All: A History of Mother’s Day

I had assumed that Mother’s Day was a greeting card holiday invented by Hallmark to turn filial guilt into revenue.  I was surprised to discover that Mother’s Day has a history longer than Christianity!  Ancients celebrated Isis (Mother of the Pharaohs), Rhea (Greek Mother of the Gods), and Cybele (The Great Mother).  The worship of these ancient goddesses is similar to the reverence we show to Mary, Jesus’s mother as these Mother Goddesses are often depicted with a baby in arms.  They also represent the reverence we should feel toward our own Heavenly Mother, symbolizing the care the earth provides to us all physically and the divine protection we receive. A later tradition that emerged in Europe was a celebration of the Mother Church.  People would travel to their home town and decorate the church with flowers and jewels.  In our church, we do something similar when we clean the chapel, which gives us a chance to show our gratitude and appreciation.  We also show this appreciation by serving each other through our callings.  In the 1600s in the UK, this evolved to include a day off for those in service (e.g. maids and butlers) to go home on this day and also enjoy a family feast in the middle of Lent in which they honored their own mother with a cake.  This holiday was known as Mothering Day.  When the Puritans colonized America, they dropped this tradition as it interrupted their relentless hardship and misery with a fun party.  Also they didn’t have a two class system.  Everyone’s lives were hard and nobody got days off.  They wished they had people in service to them to generously give a day off. After the American Civil War, Mother’s Day was instituted in the US as a day of peace and protesting war because of the sacrifices mothers had to bear whose sons had died in the war.  In 1908, mothers began to be recognized with carnations:  white for deceased mothers, pink or red for the rest.  After WWI, France (who had adopted Mother’s Day from the US) added a twist by encouraging repopulation.  Mothers were given an award based on how many children they had (a gold medal and straitjacket to those with 8 or more children). In some wards I’ve attended they’ve done something similar, recognizing women in the ward based on number of children or grandchildren.  Maybe we are trying to repopulate the church.  I’m not sure upgrading from a silver to gold medal is sufficient inducement to a harried mother of 7. Over 70 countries celebrate Mother’s Day now.  In South Korea it’s Parents Day.  In Armenia it’s Mother’s Day and Beauty Day.  Arab countries celebrate it at the beginning of spring.  In Yugoslavia and Serbia Mothers Day is part of a 3 day celebration before Christmas. The first day is Childrens Day, and the children are tied up until they promise to behave well.  The next day is Mother’s Day, and the mother is tied up until she gives them treats.  The third day is Fathers Day, and he’s tied up until he promises a lavish Christmas.  Apparently they really like tying people up.  I can only imagine what happens when Father Christmas shows up.  “Give us the goods or the reindeer takes one to the head!”  I’m guessing these are traditions that emerge where the winters are long, cold, and mostly confined indoors. How can we honor our own mothers on this day? A few years ago, I was given a copy of the 5 Love Languages, a book that talks about how people recognize affection.  For example, some people (like my mother) are skeptical of presents, feeling like they are wasteful and only given out of obligation and that people expect something in return, but other people (like my mother-in-law) feel presents show that someone was spending time thinking about you.  No matter what we give, the gift should be something that comes from the heart that the receiver will value.  Given the variety of Mothers Day traditions, there are traditions that fit all five of these love languages:

  • Words of Affirmation. Argentinian children surround their mother and read poetry.  In Mexico, the family serenades the mother with songs.  In Japan, they write cards to their mothers and also participate in an art contest every fourth year in which children draw pictures of their mother.
  • Quality Time. Visiting home, or barring that, a phone call.  Many traditions include a family feast followed by time together playing games.  This is one of 2 days a year that Mormon missionaries are allowed to call home (also Christmas).  Calling home on Mother’s Day is our tradition.  Because I am one of six daughters, we always enjoy calling without identifying ourselves.  No matter who calls, my mother’s response is the same:  “Who is this?!” Unfortunately, thanks to caller ID she can fake it better now.
  • Receiving Gifts. Traditional gifts include flowers, chocolates, jewelry, or here in Singapore, Prada handbags.  Unless your mom really loves cooking and cleaning, gifts such as vacuum cleaners or kitchenware may be grounds for justifiable homicide.
  • Acts of Service. Doing chores, breakfast in bed, cooking the meal, all of these are common Mother’s Day presents.  Some countries have a tradition of giving to charity, especially to women’s charities.  Others use the day to proclaim peace or protest war.  The Mothering Day tradition of decorating the church is also an act of service.
  • Physical Touch. Many women appreciate a spa certificate or massage or even a weekend retreat.  In Ethiopia, after the family feast, the women and girls put butter on their faces and chests and then the whole family dances and sings.  I suppose being tied up like they do in Yugoslavia involves physical touch.  To each his own I guess.

As someone once said:  “There is no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.”  We were sent to the earth as infants, dependent on imperfect adults to care for us, to teach us, and to love us despite our own imperfections.  We came from a perfected Heavenly Mother and Father who entrusted us in the care of an imperfect human mother.  Clearly, no matter how imperfect our mothers were, they were deemed good enough by Heavenly Parents for the purpose they needed to fill. Another way to honor our mothers is to reflect on what they have taught us.  From my mother, I have learned:

  • Sarcasm.  With a cocked eyebrow and a twisted smirk, my mother can lay you to waste like nobody’s business.
  • Skepticism.  One story my mother tells is about when she was 3 years old, and she was acting up at a family gathering.  Her aunt said if she didn’t settle down, they’d put her in the closet with the bear (these people were some tough monkeys, I tell ya).  She put her hands on her hips and said, “I don’t believe you have a bear in that closet!”  So they put her in there (Hey, it was 1930 – people did stuff like that!) and she backed into a fur coat that was hanging in the back of the closet, immediately thought, “Oh crap!  There really is a bear in here” and started screaming to be let out.  Needless to say, this incident probably scarred her for life and caused her to vote Republican every year since.
  • How to act in faith. My parents joined the church in 1955 despite both being from families that were most non-religious.  They took a leap of faith in joining the church in a time and place where it wasn’t well known and living faithfully ever since.  Their parents on both sides cautioned them not to take religion too seriously, but they felt the spirit and made the commitment to join.
  • Hard work ethic.  One of the stories my mom liked to tell was when they were newly married and my dad brought home a bag of dead chickens for her to clean (pluck, disembowel, and prepare for freezing) then left to go golfing.  I can attest to the fact that this was an important teaching moment for my dad in their marriage, an incident never repeated in any way shape or form.  But she did clean all ten chickens that morning.
  • The importance of getting enough sleep.  At least when I was growing up, my mom never woke up before 9am.  Getting the kids off to school was a joint effort between Captain Crunch and my dad.
  • Self-discipline. When I was a child, my mother was misdiagnosed with diabetes.  She adhered to her diabetic diet faithfully for 7 years, measuring out the food and avoiding sugar the entire seven years.  She never cheated on her diet.  Then she changed doctors and found out she wasn’t diabetic.
  • Being unconventional.  When my mother attended school, girls didn’t wear pants, and they didn’t even own pants.  She and her friend decided this was a stupid rule, and they decided to go to school in pants.  They raided their dads’ closets and wore their work pants to school hitched up with a scarf for a belt.  When they both got called in to the dean’s office, they defended their decision and said it was silly girls couldn’t be comfortable and warm like the boys.
  • Stubbornness. When she was 7, she decided her family didn’t appreciate her and she made up a little bundle of her clothes and headed down the driveway.  Her dad found her on the way and asked where she was going.  When she told him, he said they weren’t going to let her run away, and he tied her to the swingset until she was ready to decide that she wouldn’t run away.  She was defiant and said that was fine with her.  She stayed out there for hours until night fell and she got hungry and cold.  Finally she said she would stay.
  • Frugality. Despite being firmly upper middle class, in our family we always knew if hot cocoa was on the table it meant that the milk had expired and mom was trying to cover the taint with sugar and chocolate.  It was probably a byproduct of being raised during the depression, but my mom just couldn’t bring herself to throw out food.  Another time there was a vegetable dish on the table I didn’t recognize.  I asked what it was, and my mom said “greens.”  I asked what kind of greens.  She said, “Oh, just greens.”  As I looked closer I realized they looked familiar.  Then I said, “Did you pull dandelions out of our yard and cook them for dinner??”  Indeed she had.

My husband pointed out to me that I have also learned being a restless person who wants to move often, a few choice German swear words, putting the milk away before it even hits the cereal, and spontaneously bursting into song whenever anyone says a phrase that reminds me of a lyric.  We’ll see which of these goofy traits from my mother I pass on to my own children. Like our physical dependence on imperfect mothers, we are spiritually dependent on our perfect saviour.  1 John 4:19 says of our relationship with the saviour:  “We love him, because he first loved us.”  Likewise, we love our mothers because they first loved us before we knew how to love or to care for others.  And as with the saviour, there isn’t just one day a year for showing our appreciation.  If you haven’t convinced your mother you love her on the other 364 days a year, nothing you do on Mother’s Day will convince her. This mother’s day, I challenge all of us to show our gratitude:

  • For our own mothers, in all their glorious imperfection and grace.
  • For our mother church, in all its imperfection and grace.
  • For our Heavenly Mother, who entrusted us to the care of our earthly mothers and our mother church so we could grow to achieve our infinite potential.
  • For our savior, on whom we rely for our salvation through his sacrifice.


  1. I had no idea that Mother’s Day had such a storied history. (I also thought it was created by Hallmark and florists). I will gladly take on your 4 challenges. I am deeply thankful for my own mother, although she no longer lives on this earth. It’s always funny to hear the things that I say that she said. Even though I haven’t talked to her in over 5 years, I still see something and think to myself, “I should call mom and talk to her about that. She would be so interested.” Then I remember that I can’t.

  2. Chris G says:

    Lovely! Thank you.

  3. Old Geezer says:

    My wife has always cherished the Civil War connection. Ann Jarvis attempted to establish a “Mother’s Friendship Day” to reconnect families that had been divided by a war and promote peace. Ann’s daughter, Anna Jarvis, gained the support to establish a formal “Mother’s Day” in the early 1900’s(?). As my wife says: “If we really love mothers, then we should stop splitting families and killing their children.”

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Loved the post; thanks!

  5. Mark B. says:

    Straitjackets are like the strait and narrow. Nothing at all “straight” about either of ’em.

  6. Corrina says:

    I really enjoyed the stories about your mom. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Best Mother’s Day post ever!

  8. Nicely done!

  9. This is beautiful. So many things which remind me of my own mom, now gone almost 12 years – bursting into song, always putting everything away (something my wife and kids do NOT do!), frugally re-using aluminum foil and sandwich bags. And on Comment #1: every Thanksgiving, as I try to recall how much sage to put in the stuffing, it pains me when I remember that I can’t call her to ask.

    My mother once tripped over a sunbeam – not the Primary kind; a real one. When they shine in the window and are almost visible, with dust motes in them. She was carrying a hot dish (casserole, to you non-Midwesterners) to the supper table and almost dropped it in my lap. It remains one of my favorite memories.

  10. Peter LLC commented on a previous Mother’s Day talk, in what I think might have been the best comment of a bunch of them there, “[O]ne’s obligation to honor one’s mother is largely discharged at home.”

    I just think that bears repeating.

  11. Angela C says:

    New Iconoclast: My mother actually tripped over a (child) Sunbeam at church a couple years ago. Twisted her ankle and had to use a cane for a while. Darn kids!

  12. A lovely and well thought out post.


  13. I was called upon to offer the opening prayer in sacrament meeting this morning. Through my mind, as I mumbled my way through the opening hymn, went this post and many of the other posts and comments I’ve read here and in places like WaT and FMH. So many comments from so many strong women speaking of their feelings of pain and alienation since they didn’t feel, or were made to feel, that they didn’t fit the ideal model of the LDS Wife and Mother. So I did my best to offer thanks for the great women leaders we have all known, loved, and learned from, prayed that we might remember and honor those who have been important in our lives, and asked that the Spirit might be with all women on this day and always.

    You might say that I felt a great weight, suddenly, as if someone were watching me like a hawkgrrl.

    Other than that, it was a typical, stereotypical, Mother’s Day sacrament meeting, and I spent it trying to think of who in my ward would be feeling alienated or left out.

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