By Curt Collier
Anna Jarvis is one of the more storied heroes of American history. In 1925 she was arrested for disturbing the peace by trying to disrupt Mother’s Day events. She caused a ruckus at a candymakers convention in 1923 because she was appalled that they were discussing how to design gift boxes for the holiday, and threatened lawsuits against carnation growers for similar marketing strategies. Her activism against Mother’s Day culminated in her push in 1943 to have the US Government rescind the holiday. What is remarkable about all of this is that Jarvis is credited with founding Mother’s Day. She persuaded her local Episcopal Church to host a Mother’s Day event in 1908, and expanded her efforts by advocating that Congress accept it as a national holiday. This took three years, culminating in Woodrow Wilson’s signing of a proclamation in 1914 granting the holiday national status as a day to honor mothers. So, what went wrong?
She didn’t want ‘canned gushes of affection’
Jarvis quickly realized that the holiday was rapidly becoming commercialized, which she felt went directly against the spirit of the event. She railed against the Hall Brothers (now called Hallmark) for creating cards with sappy canned gushes of affection. Instead, she wanted each of us to take the day and write our own letter to our moms, spelling out all the ways our lives have been made better because of them. As she wrote: “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A petty sentiment.”
I know that many of you share in the disdain of the commercialization of the day. And yet, fail to bring home flowers, a card, or something sweet and we all still feel that pang of shame. In 1975, my dad discovered that my brother and I had prepared nothing to give mom on Mother’s Day. He was naturally pretty upset and gave what cash he had, $7, so we could find our mother a gift. I remember driving with Dad to San Antonio and discovering everything closed. We tried a local grocery store and I remember going up and down the aisles looking for something that would be worthy of a gift for Mom (Dad bought candy and flowers). Allan and I came up empty-handed, and so I purchased a card from what pitiful stock remained. (I’m sure some of you can relate). I remember my mom sitting in her chair crocheting when we handed her the card, and I could tell she was disappointed. Not because we gave her just a card, but because she wanted us to actually think of all the work she did for us.
Learning a hard lesson on Mother’s Day
Mom almost never used the guilt tactic. That wasn’t her style. But she was certainly feeling abused by her family. She worked 12-hour days Tuesday through Saturday, and then would often come home to a house with additional responsibilities, and she wanted her boys to understand they were no longer little children. Cards no longer cut it, as she wanted shared responsibility, and she finally said it. It is a lesson I learned hard that day.
The problem that so many of us have with Mother’s Day events is that we shouldn’t have to wait an entire year to tell our caregivers how much they mean to us. Expressions of gratitude for the work others do for us are often not that forthcoming, especially when we take their actions for granted. I often stop to think about how much we accomplish in this congregation due to the actions of others, whom we often don’t thank enough.
Send a handwritten note
So let me take this opportunity to say, it’s time all of us do better, including me. Let Mother’s Day be as Jarvis envisioned it—a real opportunity to take the time to share real gratitude for those who make our lives easier (and that’s not just our mothers). We need others to continue to grow as humans, to achieve our goals, and to receive comfort and support. We also need to thank them for that. This month, think of someone whom you’ve received support from, and send them a simple, handwritten note. It is good for us, and it helps acknowledge that their work has been noticed.
Sadly, Jarvis never got her wish to cancel Mother’s Day, and she ended up being placed in a sanatorium because of her declining health after years of leading protests. In a rare twist of irony, her care and eventual burial was paid for by the greeting card, floral, and candy industries. It is also ironic that Jarvis herself never married and never had any children who could thank her for the consideration she gave to upholding the importance of thanking those who raised us.
Curt Collier is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.