Mom's special day, through the ages.

By Ashley Tate
Updated April 12, 2007
Flowers with child painting
Credit: Monica Buck

The annual Mother’s Day routine: Buy bouquet of flowers. Sign greeting card. Eat brunch. But have you ever stopped to wonder how this holiday came into existence? In 1906, a year after her mother’s death, a Philadelphia woman, Anna Jarvis, began campaigning for a day on which all Americans would celebrate their moms. After spreading the word through church meetings and writing letters to government representatives and businessmen, she had nearly all 46 states observing Mother’s Day within three years, and in 1914 it became a national holiday.

Since then, Americans have found different ways to show they care, including wearing pink or white carnations in honor of Mom, making her breakfast in bed, and buying her expensive jewels (hint, hint). As for Jarvis, she devoted her last years to decommercializing Mother’s Day, because she felt its original meaning had been lost. So when you honor your mother this year, remember Jarvis’s simple description of the day’s purpose: “To let (mothers) know we appreciate them, though we do not show it as often as we ought.” Here, a look at how moms have been celebrated throughout history. P.S. You may want to stick with flowers and a card.

  • People in ancient Greece paid tribute to Rhea, the mother of the gods, with honey cakes, fine drinks, and flowers at dawn. This was the earliest Mother’s Day celebration.
  • In Britain, during the Middle Ages, it was customary for the wealthy to give servants the day off on Mothering Sunday (the fourth Sunday of Lent) so they could visit their mothers, who often lived far away.
  • In Serbia, Mother’s Day is called Materice and is celebrated on the second Sunday before Christmas. Children sneak into their mother’s bedroom and gently tie her feet with ribbon or string. To negotiate her release, the mother gives her children small gifts. (Not much in it for Mom, but she does get to lie down for a bit.)