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The History of Mother's Day

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Mother's Day as a national holiday in the United States is almost a century old, but its roots go back before the Civil War to a hard-working Virginian mother and activist named Anna Reeves Jarvis.

In total, Anna Reeves Jarvis gave birth to eleven children, though only four of them survived to adulthood. In the late 1850s, seeing the mortal costs of disease and bad sanitation, Anna began organizing Mothers' Day Work Clubs, which brought together local mothers to help promote cleanliness and sanitation in the community. During the Civil War, Anna (by then a resident of the Union's newly formed state of West Virginia) encouraged these clubs to remain neutral and to nurse wounded soldiers from the Confederacy and Union alike.

Throughout Anna Reeves Jarvis's work with her family, her church, and her community, she expressed her wish that someday, the importance of a mother's work would be formally recognized by all.

One of her surviving children, her daughter Anna, born in 1864, took those wishes to heart. When Anna Reeves Jarvis died on May 9, 1905, the younger Anna hoped to fulfill her mother's wish. She and her friends and supporters began a letter-writing campaign to establish a national holiday in celebration of the importance of motherhood.

The campaign was successful as, by degrees, this new holiday came into being. On May 9, 1908, Anna's home town of Grafton, WV, was the first to recognize Mother's Day in a church service on the third anniversary of Anna Reeves Jarvis's death. At that service, Anna presented each mother in attendance with one of her mother's favorite flowers, the white carnation.

Two years later, the state of West Virginia adopted Mother's Day as a state holiday. Anna's letter-writing campaign continued as she pushed for broader recognition. One by one, more states began celebrating Mother's Day in their own ways.

It wasn't until May 1914 that a President Woodrow Wilson, following a Joint Resolution of Congress, signed and issued Proclamation 1268, creating a national Mother's Day and setting its observance on the second Sunday of May. Since that first proclamation, every U.S. President has issued a Presidential Mother's Day Proclamation that recognizes and honors America's mothers.

By then, carnations had already become a traditional symbol of Mother's Day. More specifically, red carnations were used to honor living mothers, and white carnations were placed on the graves of deceased mothers.

Ironically, Anna Jarvis, "the mother of Mother's Day," never had any children of her own. After she died in 1948, at the age of 84, she was buried — quite fittingly — next to her mother in Philadelphia.

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