For many countries, Mother’s Day is coming up soon, and we’re already scrolling Etsy or online stores to find the perfect gift for mom. For others, this Sunday is just another regular weekend with no celebrations. That is because not all countries actually observe the second-Sunday-of-May rule to commemorate the occasion.
Did you know that the U.K. celebrates Mother’s Day in March, and it is called ‘Mothering Sunday’ instead? Or that for Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, the occasion is marked on March 21? Meanwhile, Russia celebrates it twice a year. With so much to remember, why isn’t there a standardized date for a momentous affair honoring a central figure in our lives?
The answer lies in the stories and unique significance behind these dates. Most of us will scramble for gifts before the second Sunday of May, but the history behind this commemoration is quite different from the cards and carnations that we’ve come to associate it with. In reality, the inventor of Mother’s Day in the U.S. sought to abolish the holiday that she inadvertently created.
Anna Jarvis, the creator of the occasion, originally sought only to honor her late mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis. Her mother had previously started Mother’s Day Work Clubs in different U.S. cities to improve sanitary conditions during the Civil War. After her death, Anna organized observances on May 10 in West Virginia. On that same day, another 15,000 would observe Mother’s Day in Philadelphia to honor the mothers in their lives. The memorials caught on, and soon, Mother’s Day became a national phenomenon.
It finally became official when Congress designated the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day in 1914, a date closest to the death anniversary of Ann Reeves Jarvis.
However, Anna would grow to resent the very occasion she created. When Mother’s Day became yet another sentimental event ripe for commercialization, she balked against the proliferation of gifts and cards hyped up by companies, so much so that she was even once arrested for protesting the sale of carnations. Anna saw Mother’s Day as an event that cheapened the sanctity of her mother’s memorialization, and together with her sister, she spent her family assets in pursuit of abolishing the occasion.
In the U.K., Mothering Sunday has religious undertones that go back into the Middle Ages. For people who lived away from their mothers, a custom was developed so that adults can return to their childhood homes or ‘mother’ churches. This typically fell on the fourth Sunday of Lent, the 40-day period in the Christian calendar before Easter. Hence, Mothering Sunday in the U.K. also has varying dates each year according to the Christian calendar.
The custom eventually wore off over the centuries, until Constance Smith, a High Anglican member, revived it in the postwar 1920s. Writing under the pseudonym C. Penswick Smith, she published a booklet titled The Revival of Mothering Sunday, which resonated sentimentally with many mothers who lost their sons in the First World War. Her actions caught like wildfire, and organizations like the Boy Scouts and Girls Guides would soon actively spread the idea. Now, Mothering Sunday is a lucrative venture fetching up to nearly £1.6 billion in revenue, hardly the picture of religious observance linked to its origins.
Whether it’s in March, May, or November, Mother’s Day has become yet another poignant celebration usurped by corporatism.
For women who find themselves acting as mothers to children or a community, the personal is inexplicably political, considering the mental load that mothering entails. This sentiment is echoed in the history of Mother’s Day celebrations in Egypt and Russia.
Egypt’s modern commemoration of Mother’s Day can be traced back to 1956, thanks to the book A Smiling America by journalist Mostafa Amin. It wasn’t until 10 years later that he would deliver an official request campaigning for Mother’s Day to be celebrated in the country. Amin was impelled to action after his brother, Ali, met a single mother who lamented being abandoned by her son whom she had raised single-handedly. Amin revived the idea of Mother’s Day, and the brothers’ weekly newspaper Akhbar el-Yom soon declared on its front page that it would be celebrated on March 21. This custom was quickly adopted by the rest of the Arab world, which is timed to coincide with the spring equinox.
But why does Russia celebrate it twice? The largest country in the world’s official Mother’s Day date falls on the last Sunday in November, introduced by then-president Boris Yeltsin in 1998. The seeds for its commemoration were already sown in the 1940s when Russian women demanded equal rights and liberties enjoyed by men.
However, another occasion takes precedence over any other day honoring women. Russia celebrates International Women’s Day religiously more than any other country, where it is an official public holiday. This day is also considered as a form of Mother’s Day by the population at large. March 8 is a day where the Russian town is literally painted in red: where the color was once synonymous with the Soviet Union and women’s political movement for equal rights, red flowers and gifts now adorn shops and households all over the country.
Whether it’s in March, May, or November, Mother’s Day has become yet another poignant celebration usurped by corporatism. While the gift and floral business continue to thrive annually as the occasion draws near, mothers all over the world still struggle with shouldering mental load and invisible labor, whether at home or outside of it.
We’re still asking whether women can have it all, instead of upending current patriarchal structures to mold a new, equitable future for everyone. So in place of gifts and gestures, maybe it’s time to reassess your relationships with the mothers in your lives and ask if you’re doing anything to unburden their labor that you’ve taken for granted.
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