US Mother's Day 2019: How the campaign was won – and the woman behind it turned against her life's work

Telegraph Reporters
Founder of US Mother's Day Anna Jarvis - Bettmann

Mother's Day in the United States, or Mom's Day as it is sometimes known, is an annual holiday celebrating mothers, motherhood and maternal bonds in general, as well as the positive contributions they make to society in raising their children.

While Britons celebrated Mother's Day on March 31, the US occasion takes place every year on the second Sunday of May. This year it falls on Sunday, May 12. 

But when did the US celebration of Mother's Day begin and how did it encourage the revival of Mothering Sunday in the UK? Here is everything you need to know about the American celebration of motherly figures. 

How did US Mother's Day begin?

It was American social activist Anna Jarvis (1864-1948) from West Virginia who campaigned for an official day for mothers in the US. She is regarded as the "Mother of Mother's Day" and dedicated her life to lobbying for the holiday. She vowed to do so after her mother, Ann's, death, which fell on May 9 1905.

Ann Jarvis, who died in 1905, was a peace activist during the American Civil War and cared for soldiers from both sides of the conflict. She also set up Mother’s Day Work Clubs to address public health issues. It was this work that her daughter Anna wanted to continue by starting a day especially for mothers.

Jarvis had to fight hard to be heard as during the 1900s women's rights had not yet progressed enough for her to be taken seriously. She found it difficult to gain support in a male-dominated society.

But a breakthrough came on May 8, 1908 when she helped arrange the first ever Mother's Day service at Andrew's Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, which was attended by 407 children and their mothers. The church is now known as the International Mother’s Day Shrine and has been designated a historic landmark.

Although US Congress rejected her bid to make the day a national holiday in 1908, by 1911 people in all US states had started celebrating the day. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the second Sunday in May to be 'Mother's Day', to honour the day Anna Jarvis' mother died. 

As the years passed, it became increasingly commercial and industries saw it as a way to make money from the public. Jarvis became concerned at this, saying "I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit."

Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother's Day, was against the commercialisation Credit: Julian Simmonds 

She also didn't like the selling of flowers and the use of greetings cards which she described as "a poor excuse for a letter you are too lazy to write". She organised boycotts of Mother's Day and threatened lawsuits against companies involved, eventually being arrested for protesting at a Mother's Day carnation sale by the American War Mothers.

Mothering Sunday in Britain

In Britain the day is known as Mothering Sunday. Originating as a religious occasion much earlier than US Mother's Day, the UK celebration is always on the fourth Sunday of Lent, exactly three weeks before Easter Sunday and usually in the second half of March or early April.

From the 16th century, it was custom for people to return home to their families and their ‘mother’ church on Laetare Sunday – the middle of Lent. Those who did so were said to have gone ‘a-mothering’.

The day soon became a holiday event, when young domestic servants were given a day off work to return home and visit their mothers and 'mother' churches.

While the religious celebration was significant for many years, by the early 1900s it began to decline, following the Americanisation of Mother's Day.

But the day later took off again in Britain when vicar's daughter Constance Smith was inspired by a 1913 newspaper report of Jarvis' campaign and began a push for the day to be officially marked in England.

Smith, of Coddington, Nottinghamshire, founded the Mothering Sunday Movement and even wrote a booklet The Revival of Mothering Sunday in 1920. Interestingly, neither Smith nor Jarvis became mothers themselves.

By 1938 Mothering Sunday had become a significant celebration with Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and various parishes across Britain marking the day and communities adopting the imported traditions of American and Canadian soldiers during the war.

By the 1950s it was being celebrated throughout Britain much the same as US Mother's Day and businesses realised the commercial opportunities, leading to the card and flower-heavy version of the day we celebrate today.

Is it Mother’s Day or Mothers' Day?

Armchair linguists tend to disagree on whether the apostrophe in Mother's Day should come before or after the 's'. Those who argue it should fall after the 's' say the day is a celebration of all mothers and the punctuation should reflect that. 

However Anna Jarvis trademarked the term 'Mother's Day' – with the apostrophe before the 's' – in 1912, saying the word should 'be a singular possessive, for each family to honour its own mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world'.

President Woodrow Wilson used this spelling when he announced the day in 1914; this means the correct version of the word is spelled with the apostrophe before the 's'.

Mother's Day around the world

As the years passed, Jarvis's Mother's Day was adopted in countries all over the world. The majority of countries celebrate the occasion on the same day as Americans, including Japan, Italy, Germany, Greece, Canada, Australia, South Africa, India and China.

In many countries, including the US and Australia, it is custom to wear a carnation on the day. A colourful carnation signifies that a person's mother is living while a white carnation is used to honour a deceased mother.

Many other nations also celebrate mothers, but at different times of the year. In Norway, Mother's Day is always on the second Sunday of February, while in Thailand it's on August 12 – the same day as the Queen of Thailand's birthday.

Several countries, including Afghanistan, Belarus, Vietnam, Romania and Kosovo, celebrate the occasion on International Women's Day, which falls on March 8 every year.