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A brief history of International Mother's Day

A brief history of International Mother's Day

Mother’s Day, the international day of honouring motherhood, has a fascinating history, and over time has morphed into many different traditions around the world. In this article we take a look at the significance of the celebration and explore how it is recognised in Switzerland and further afield. 

History of Mothering Sunday

Mothers have been celebrated since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, when festivals were held in honour of mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. However, the precedent for modern-day Mother’s Day comes from the early Christian festival called “Mothering Sunday.”

Mothering Sunday was once a major tradition in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, falling on the fourth Sunday of Lent. It was seen as a time when the faithful would return to their “mother church”, or the main church in the area, for a special service. Over time, the Mothering Sunday holiday became a more secular holiday, where children would gift their mothers flowers or other tokens of appreciation.

Mother’s Day gained more popularity in the 1930s and 1940s after it was merged with the American Mother’s Day.

The American Mother’s Day

American Mother’s Day was first conceived of by Anna Jarvis, the daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis. After her mother died, Jarvis came up with Mother’s Day as a way of honouring mothers, and the sacrifices they make for their children. Her efforts to promote it proved successful, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure which officially established the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day, a day for children to honour their mothers. 

Interestingly, Anna Jarvis was vehemently against the commercialisation of Mother's Day. Her intent for the holiday was a day of personal celebration for mothers, so she felt that the connection with gifts and cards took away from the original purpose of the holiday. She went as far as to denounce the holiday completely, and even lobbied the government to have it removed from the American calendar. 

Mother’s Day around the world

However, despite Jarvis's reservations, the tradition stuck, and Mother's Day continues to be celebrated around the world, with each country developing its own version of the festivities. 

In Japan, white carnations are presented to mothers to symbolise the sweetness and endurance of motherhood. This current tradition was adopted after World War II to comfort mothers who had lost their children in the war.

In Ethiopia, at the end of the rainy season in early autumn, the Antrosht festival is dedicated to mothers. After the monsoon season ends, families head to their homes for a large meal and celebration, where traditionally the girls bring vegetables and cheese, and the boys bring meat. Together, the family prepares the food while singing stories about their families.

In Peru, Mother's Day is not a single day event, but a week-long festival. Families organise meals, trips, and parties in honour of their mothers. Cities stage art shows and musical performances, and mothers visit museums, exhibits and festival throughout the whole week. Another unique aspect is that people visit the graves of their late mothers, grandmothers, and other maternal figures to honour them as well, by offering flowers and balloons. 

In Germany, Mother's Day (Muttertag) is usually celebrated on the second Sunday of May. There is some suggestion that the holiday's German origins lie in a celebration that was held in the state of Thuringia in spring, but it wasn't until the 1920s that the day was celebrated routinely across Germany. Nowadays, mothers in Germany typically receive cards, presents and flowers from their loved ones, while some families leave white flowers on the graves of their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

In The Netherlands, Mother's Day is referred to as "Moederdag", and it is a day where children pamper their mothers for an entire day. The children will make breakfast in bed and give their mothers a gift. Some Dutch schools also help the children make gifts for their mothers the week before Moederdag.

Mother's Day in Switzerland

In Switzerland, the Salvation Army established Mother's Day in 1917, but until the 1920s the holiday was only observed by a small number of people. In the 1930s, however, the press, florists and master confectioners joined efforts to give the holiday a major boost. It has been celebrated on the second Sunday of May ever since.  

Swiss children typically celebrate Mother's Day by bringing their mothers breakfast in bed, gifting flowers, or other small trinkets.

Do you celebrate Mother's Day in your home country? How is it typically marked? Let us know in the comments below!

Eesha Wirk

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Eesha Wirk

Eesha studied in the United States, obtaining a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience and Studio Art. She is currently getting her Research Masters in Cognitive Neuropsychology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. In...

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