Mother’s Day 2021: how Anna Jarvis’ campaign led to the global celebration of mums

Mother’s Day, the celebration of mums far and wide, is fast approaching, with children set to present flowers, cards and chocolates to their maternal figures as a thank you for all they do.

While the occasion has become heavily commercialised in recent years and we now typically associate the day with buying gifts and making breakfast in bed for our mums, it has not always been linked to honouring motherhood.

From the history behind the calendar date to the traditions and its Americanisation, here is the story of Mother’s Day.

When is Mother’s Day 2021?

This year, Mother’s Day, otherwise known as Mothering Sunday in the UK, falls on Sunday, March 14.

The date changes every year, but always takes place on the fourth Sunday of Lent, exactly three weeks before Easter Sunday and usually in the second half of March or early April.

Mothering Sunday is a celebration of mothers and the maternal bond, and while celebrations and gatherings could be limited again this year due to the Covid-19 restrictions, the day offers us all a chance to show love, gratitude and appreciation to our wonderful mums.

Children commonly give flowers, presents, cards and acts of kindness to their mothers, as well as their other special maternal figures including grandmothers, stepmothers and mothers-in-law.

The origins of ‘Mothering Sunday’

Celebrations of motherly figures date back to ancient periods, with the Greeks holding festivals of worship every spring to celebrate Rhea, the Mother of the Gods, and the Romans honouring their mother goddess, Cybele, every March as early as 250BC. 

Yet, the early Christian date, known as Mothering Sunday, is the first clear recognition of the maternal bond, beginning as a religious occasion in the 16th century to give thanks to the Virgin Mary, or Mother Mary. 

The development of Christianity across Europe led to Mothering Sunday becoming an official calendar date, falling on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

Throughout the years during this period, people in England and Ireland would regularly visit their ‘daughter’ church, but on Mothering Sunday, people would visit their ‘mother’ church instead to bring offerings of thanks.

The fourth Sunday of Lent is also the date of another Christian celebration, known as Laetare Sunday, where people would return home to their families and mothers from church. Anyone who did this was said to have gone “a-mothering”.

Mothering Sunday later became a day when children and young people, working as domestic servants, were granted a day off to visit their mothers and families. Reunions often took place within the “mother” churches.

While the religious celebration of Mothering Sunday had a significant following for many centuries, by the early 1900s it began to decline, following the Americanisation of Mother’s Day.

Anna Jarvis and the impact of the U.S. campaign for “Mother’s Day”

While “Mothering Sunday” originates from the UK and Ireland, the history behind Mother’s Day is slightly different, originating from a U.S. movement.

American social activist Anna Jarvis, from Grafton, West Virginia, was behind the creation of Mother’s Day, lobbying the government for an official day.

Her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, dedicated her life to motherhood, creating work clubs before the Civil War, which taught women how to care for their children. She also set up the Mother’s Friendship Day in 1868, uniting mothers with former Union and Confederate soldiers.  

Following her mother’s death on May 9, 1905, Anna Jarvis fought for the official holiday, to honour the sacrifices mothers made for their children and in May 1908, she organised the first official Mother’s Day celebration at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia.

Founder of Mother's Day Anna M. Jarvis


Founder of Mother’s Day Anna M. Jarvis


Credit: Bettmann

After her first celebration proved a success, Jarvis wanted her holiday to become a national calendar date, suggesting American holidays favoured male achievements.

Nicknamed the ‘Mother of Mother’s Day’, Jarvis began a letter writing campaign to newspapers and politicians, urging them to create an annual holiday.

Her message later spread and by 1912, many states, towns and churches made Mother’s Day an official celebration, while Jarvis formed the Mother’s Day International Association to raise further awareness.

Her fight and dedicated campaign soon paid off, after President Woodrow Wilson officially established the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Americans have recognised the day annually ever since and this year, Mother’s Day in the US falls on Sunday, May 9.

Jarvis’s fight to recognise mothers even inspired others, including Constance Adelaide Smith, who helped increase recognition of the UK Mothering Sunday again, following its decline.

Mother's Day founder Constance Smith (also known as C Penswick Smith in her published works) 


Mother’s Day founder Constance Smith (also known as C Penswick Smith in her published works) 

Smith was left inspired by a newspaper article in 1913, detailing Jarvis’ campaign in America, and as a result published “The Revival of Mothering Sunday” in 1920.

Smith, along with Ellen Porter, a colleague from the Girls’ Friendly Society lodge, also led a movement to promote Mothering Sunday, publishing information about the UK traditions and Christian origin. 

By the time of Smith’s death, Mothering Sunday was said to be recognised across the whole British Empire.

How to celebrate Mother’s Day 2021

Unfortunately, large family celebrations will not be possible again this Mother’s Day, as some Covid-19 lockdown restrictions are set to remain in place for the coming weeks.

On February 22, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a roadmap for easing lockdown in England, and confirmed that non-essential shops, pubs and restaurants will remain closed until April 12. People will also be advised to ‘stay at home’ in all but exceptional circumstances until March 29, and indoor socialising will be banned until May 17.

However, there are still plenty of ways to mark the occasion this year. From March 8, the outdoor exercising rules will change, allowing people in England to meet one-on-one outside in public spaces for socialising. This means that mums and children who live apart could enjoy a coffee or picnic together in the park on Mother’s Day.

From March 8, care home residents will also be allowed a single regular visitor. If your mother lives in a care home, this means that you can visit in person and hold hands. But, hugging will not be permitted and visitors will need to obtain a negative Covid-19 test beforehand and wear protective equipment. 

Those who live apart from their mothers can still set up a video call via Zoom, FaceTime or Skype, or send flowers, gifts and cards in the post.

If you live with your mother or have formed a support bubble with them, you could also show how much you appreciate them by cooking a special meal or ordering their favourite takeaway.

Read more: How to celebrate Mother’s Day 2021 during the Covid-19 pandemic

The official flower of Mother’s Day

Blooming beautiful bouquets make a significant appearance around Mother’s Day, with children commonly presenting colourful bunches to their mums. But, what flowers should you give your motherly figures on March 14?

If you’re looking for bouquet inspiration, carnations are a good place to start, as they are a well-known symbol of Mother’s Day. In fact, Anna Jarvis distributed white carnations, her mother’s favourite flowers, during the first Mother’s Day memorial service in 1908, making them a popular choice ever since.

Legend has it that carnations were closely linked to a mother’s love before the American celebration too, with pink carnations supposedly sprouting from Virgin Mary’s tears over the death of Jesus.

Read more: The best flowers for Mother’s Day 2021

Mother’s Day gifts and presents

Bumper boxes of chocolates and colourful bunches of flowers are traditionally presented to our maternal figures on Mother’s Day.

But, the increasing commercialisation of the day has meant retailers now compete to offer the best gifts and consumers search shops to find the perfect treats for their mums. 

Global Data, estimated that Mother’s Day spending in the UK increased to £1.6 billion in 2019, despite the event falling slightly later than the previous year.

However, Global Data found that 25.4 per cent of consumers spent less on Mother’s Day purchases in 2020, as economic uncertainties grew as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and fewer people were able to see their mothers due to the government issuing stay-at-home guidance.

Read more: The best gifts for Mother’s Day 2021 – special present ideas your mum will love

Refreshment Sunday

During Lent, people who follow the Christian message often refrain from eating sweet foods, rich foods and meat as a reflection of Jesus’s sacrifice in the Judean desert.

But, fasting rules were relaxed on Mothering Sunday, which takes place during the fasting period, allowing people to enjoy treats and special meals with their families. This led to the day earning the name, Refreshment Sunday.

As the abstinence of certain foods was lifted, people often prepared Simnel cakes to enjoy with their families and mothers – a fruit cake made with two layers of almond paste and covered in a layer of marzipan. Traditionally, it is decorated with 11 balls of marzipan, representing the 11 disciples, and finished with sugar violets.

The name “Simnel” is thought to have come from the Latin word simila, which is a wheat flour used for baking cakes.

The poet Robert Herrick linked Mother’s Day to “Simnel” as early as the 17th century, when he wrote:

I’ll to thee a Simnel bring,Gainst thou go’st a Mothering

One legend says a man called Simon and his wife Nell disagreed whether their Mothering Sunday cake should be baked or boiled. They decided to do both, and consequently the cake was named “Sim-Nell”, in honour of them.

Read more: The best Mother’s Day food gifts, hampers and restaurant meal kits for 2021

The perfect Simnel cake recipe

If you’re planning to present your mum with a homemade treat this year, Paul Hollywood’s Simnel cake recipe is a delicious choice.

This classic fruit cake, packed with glace cherries, currants and apricot jam, and completed with a gentle zest of lemon and orange, will no doubt leave your mum delighted this Mother’s Day.

Paul Hollywood's simnel cake


Paul Hollywood’s simnel cake makes the perfect Mother’s Day treat


Credit: Peter Cassidy

Mother’s Day or Mothers’ Day?

It’s often debated where the apostrophe in Mother’s Day should be placed, with some arguing it should fall after the ‘s’ because it celebrates all mothers.

But, others claim it should be before the ‘s’ as Jarvis trademarked the name ‘Mother’s Day’ in 1912, saying the term 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 also followed this when he proclaimed the day in 1914, meaning the term is correctly written with the apostrophe before the ‘s’.

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