Arts & Culture

The Mountaineer History of Mother’s Day

No surprise—the holiday that honors the women who loved us first was born in the South

photo: Courtesy of the Mother's Day Shrine, Grafton, WV

This Sunday’s celebration of motherhood has a Southern heritage, and it honors an original West Virginia “mountain mama.”

It all begins in the mid-1800s in what would become West Virginia, with a mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, and her daughter, Anna Jarvis, explains Katharine Antolini, who wrote the book, Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day. “The story goes that when Anna was twelve years old, she heard her mother give a Sunday school prayer saying that she hoped someday, somebody out there would create a day commemorating the service of mothers,” Antolini says.

photo: Courtesy of the Mother's Day Shrine, Grafton, WV

Anna Jarvis in 1912.

The elder Ann had reason to desire some recognition. Throughout her life, she had been an advocate for volunteer service throughout the Appalachian region and had organized Mothers’ Day Work Clubs to educate the community on common health issues, disease prevention, and sanitation needs starting in 1858. After the Civil War began in 1861, she altered the club’s mission to help provide medical aid to both Confederate and Union soldiers.

When Ann died on May 9, 1905, according to legend, her daughter promised she would fulfill her mother’s wish. Anna wanted to pick the second Sunday in May because it was close to the anniversary of her mother’s death, and she wanted the holiday to fall on a Sunday so that it would have a strong religious tie.

photo: Courtesy of the Mother's Day Shrine, Grafton, WV

A program from the first Mother’s Day in 1908.

In 1908, Anna Jarvis organized the first Mother’s Day church service in the same church where she heard her mother’s prayer, Andrews Methodist Episcopal in Grafton, West Virginia, and decorated the sanctuary with white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower. “She really set it up as a way to honor her own mother, and she told people that the best way to celebrate the event was to go home and visit your mother,” Antolini says. “And if you couldn’t visit your mother, write her a letter.”

photo: Tyler Evert, West Virginia Division of Tourism

Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church.

The idea took hold. By 1914 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day a national holiday. But Jarvis was horrified when the price of carnations began ratcheting up ahead of the increasingly secular holiday, and when people started sending store-bought cards and gifts instead of simply spending time with their mothers. She even got frustrated with charities who used the day to raise funds. “She was upset that people were profiting off what she considered her own mother’s day,” Antolini says.

So what’s a good way to remember mothers in a manner that the founder of Mother’s Day would have approved of? “Spend a day with her or write her a letter to thank her,” Antolini says. “That time is more important than any kind of trinket or card you could send.”

photo: Tyler Evert, West Virginia Division of Tourism

The birthplace of Anna Jarvis.

And if you find yourself near Grafton, West Virginia, visit Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, which hosts a Mother’s Day service each year. The National Historic Landmark is also designated as the International Mother’s Day Shrine and is open for afternoon tours from April through October.