Home All The Meaning in Mother’s Day

Giselle Nicholson Timmerman, MAPP '06, has over nine years of experience working as a strategy consultant and leadership coach in the Americas, Europe, and Middle East. Giselle has pioneered the application of positive psychology to strategy, leadership, and organizations. She has seen the field develop firsthand and is fortunate to collaborate with the very best practitioners in the world via her collaborative consultant network, Positive Work. Giselle serves as President-elect of the Work Division for the International Positive Psychology Association. Full bio. Giselle's articles are here.

Flowers for Mother's Day

Flowers for Mother's Day

Humans gravitate towards creating and celebrating rituals in all sizes and forms – from a morning shower routine to the composition of a elaborate Thanksgiving dinner. Rituals are a way for us to recognize our values and connect to what creates meaning in our lives. Many believe that rituals are psychologically necessary to our daily life and that they give us a rhythm to connect to within our stressful and chaotic lives. So the idea is that by consciously or unconsciously engaging in ritualistic behavior we are able to more fully ground ourselves and reconnect to our values or with others. When rituals become commonly observed our country sometimes lets us make a holiday out of it, however, Mother’s Day in the United States started as a holiday intended to recognize the value of mothers and was without its established rituals.


Despite rumors or cynicism, Mother’s Day is not a holiday that was created by Hallmark. However, in many ways it has evolved in such a way that perhaps the cynics have a point. The very first celebrations for mothers date back to the annual spring festival the Greeks dedicated to Rhea, the mother of many deities, and to the offerings ancient Romans made to their Great Mother of Gods, Cybele. Christians celebrated this festival on the fourth Sunday in Lent in honor of Mary, mother of Christ. In England this holiday was expanded to include all mothers and was called Mothering Sunday.

Where Did Mother’s Day Come From?

Mother’s Day in the United States dates back to about 150 years ago when an Appalachian mother, Anne Jarvis, organized a day to raise awareness of poor health conditions in her community, a cause she believed would be best advocated by mothers. She called it “Mother’s Work Day.” Fifteen years later, Julia Ward Howe, a Boston poet, pacifist, and suffragist had similar ideals after the Civil War when she attempted to create a formal Mother’s Day for Peace, which was to encourage mothers to rally for peace because she believed they bore the loss of human life more harshly than anyone else.

When Anne Jarvis died, her daughter Anna began to lobby businessmen and politicians to create a special day to honor mothers. The first such Mother’s Day was celebrated in Grafton, West Virginia, on May 10, 1908, in the church where Anne Jarvis had taught Sunday School. Five years later, the House of Representatives adopted a resolution calling for officials of the federal government to wear white carnations on Mother’s Day. In 1914 Anna’s hard work paid off when Woodrow Wilson signed a bill recognizing Mother’s Day as a national holiday.

From Gratitude Letters and Church to Dining Out and the Highest Phone Traffic

At first, people observed Mother’s Day by attending church, writing letters to their mothers (gratitude letters!), and eventually, by sending cards, presents, and flowers. As the commercialization of Mother’s Day increased, Jarvis became more and more enraged and became an opponent of what the holiday had become. She believed that the day’s sentiment was being sacrificed at the expense of greed and profit and so in 1923 she filed a lawsuit to stop a Mother’s Day festival, and was even arrested for disturbing the peace at a convention selling carnations for a war mother’s group. Before her death in 1948, Jarvis is said to have confessed that she regretted ever starting the mother’s day tradition.

As we all may know, Mother’s Day is one of the most commercially successful holidays, is the most popular day of the year to dine out, and telephone companies record their highest traffic. Although I don’t believe that flowers, lovely dinners and pampering are bad ways to celebrate our mothers, I do think it’s important that we understand the meaning behind our rituals. Although today is probably not the most materialistic of holidays (I don’t know a single mother who doesn’t treasure her homemade gifts most), I think there are some ways that we can be more cognizant about how we wish to display our values through a holiday. By doing away with distractions and bells and whistles, we can focus on what matters most within our family so that we can find our lives filled with meaning, purpose and happiness.

By concentrating on meaningful rituals and traditions, the materialistic aspects of holidays will most likely diminish. From my observations, the most treasured family rituals are usually interesting, fulfilling, and fun and typically involve family, friends, faith, nature, charity and giving, music, the arts, and food. It also seems to me that Seligman’s gratitude letter is most appropriate for today and best honors Mother’s Day history.

I think it’s also important to remember that in the United States, this holiday started as a way for mothers to advocate causes, namely healthy communities and peace. Let’s not forget to remember that this is a day to celebrate the milestones of all women and the positive influence and impact that mothers have in making our world better. Hopefully, by knowing more about the history of this day we will all be a little more aware today of the meaning behind our actions and how our holiday rituals reinforce what we value.

All that being said, turn off your computer and go make your mom feel fantastic!

Flores no dia das mães courtesy of Vitorio Benedetti

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Giselle Nicholson 13 May 2007 - 1:55 pm

This is a great website for those who want to simplify their holidays, especially around Christmas.


Senia Maymin 14 May 2007 - 3:11 am

Gigi, I never knew the history! It sounds like it was more a work day at first rather than the relax day it is now.

And I like your “from gratitude letter to highest day of phone calls” and “from church to dining out” comparisons.

Angus Skinner 14 May 2007 - 8:39 pm

Thank you Giselle, this is history I did not know. My lovely mother died many years ago but she would have loved to read your account, as did I.
I think you are absolutely right to emphasize the importance of rituals/ceremonies/events, their value and meaning.
I am in awe really of all that my mother achieved, loving the five of us children, herself the youngest of eight and pretty much in control of her 7 brothers. She built the first primary school in Jallalpur Jattan (Pakistan) where I was born. My mum was born in Bornesketaig, Skye in a two roomed ‘black house’ that housed animals as well as the family and she was the first girl from there to go to University. A missionary she carried her religious views lightly as well as practically. As I reflect she was always close to delight, easy to delight and happy to engage with people of all faiths in that. We seem to be losing that innocence of perception and I am fearful of the consequences. Your piece reminded me of the importance of my mother in my values and basic compass. Thank you.


Gigi 15 May 2007 - 1:16 am

Thank you for sharing your mother’s extraordinary achievements. From your orange socks to your quick smiles and laughter I can see that you share in your mother’s delight of life.
You bring up such an important concept about birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and even anniversaries – our rituals celebrate our values and these special days are really about cherishing the values that our families and loved ones share with us, which shape who we are and how we touch others.

Thank you, Angus.

Senia Maymin 15 May 2007 - 5:45 am

What a great description of your Mom. So specific in the details. I like this: “As I reflect she was always close to delight, easy to delight and happy to engage with people of all faiths in that.” It felt really warm to read this.


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