This coming Sunday, those of us in the United States will be celebrating Mother’s Day. What is Mother’s Day? We are told it is of pagan origins, but if it is, what about Father’s Day? I dug in to these questions and would like to share what I found. Please note this is specific to Mother’s Day as celebrated in the United States, and it’s history in other countries is beyond the scope of this discussion.
Mother’s Day in the United States is accredited to two individuals. First is and abolitionist from the 19th century by the name Julia Ward Howe, who worked to establish a day called Mother’s Peace Day. While the name sounds pretty self explanatory considering we had recently come out of the Civil War, let us clarify why there was this push to have a Mother’s Peace Day. I would suggest doing a Google search for her proclamation so that it can be read in full, for brevity I will include a few lines of it that I feel are most pertinent (stress is my own):
We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking of carnage, for caresses and applause.
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says “Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.”
In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.
Was this day rooted in paganism or rooted in the desire for peace? To move forward from the travesties of the war and heal the nation? More men died in the civil war than in both World Wars combined, and it was the mothers of these men, and the wives of these men to who must now raise their children alone, who were left to rebuild.
The second person attributed with bringing about Mother’s Day in the United States is Anna Jarvis. She campaigned to make the day officially recognized and in 1914 that happened under President Woodrow Wilson. She is quoted as saying “I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.”
So where is this idea that it is rooted in paganism? This is a case of confusing association with causation. Mothering Day is a holiday that was, and still is, prominent in Europe and more specifically the United Kingdom. It takes places in the middle of Lent and is a day when people would return to their ‘mother’ church as part of a renewal of their faith. Since that is where one’s parents usually lived, it was also a time to reunite with one’s mother. However the purpose of Mothering Day was a return to your church of baptism during Lent, and the celebration of motherhood was just a side effect.
In essence we have two holidays, both with similar sounding names, but with completely different origins and completely different purposes and held and completely different times of the year. Is there more to this than just a confusion over names? Is there a link between these two holidays? In the United Kingdom there is a link. As observance of Mothering Day started to decline there, the observance of Mother’s Day in the United States was just starting, and thanks to the likes of Hallmark was growing quite well. While this is also another point that Mother’s Day in the United States is by all accounts not the same thing as Mothering Day, it is this growth in the observance of honoring one’s mother in the United States that lead to Mothering Day in the United Kingdom to focus more on mothers and less on the church.
In my opinion, based on the evidence above, I think it is pretty evident that Mother’s Day as celebrated in the United States is not of pagan origin, however Mothering Day (or as they now also sometimes call it Mother’s Day) in the United Kingdom is indeed of pagan origin. Does this mean that we should no longer celebrate this secular holiday here just because a pagan religion in another part of the world decided to co-opt it to boost the decline in observance of their own holiday? We (in the United States) still do not celebrate it during Lent, nor do we celebrate it as part of any religious function.
If you are still here, I also asked about Father’s Day. From my research, Father’s Day has been celebrated since the middle ages. It was observed then on the 19th of March as the feast day of Saint Joseph. According to Wikipedia, this Father’s Day was even celebrated in the United States, but only by Catholics, until the early 20th century when it became an officially recognized holiday to complement Mother’s Day. While the date of observance may have changed, the celebration of fatherhood has remained the same. I would argue it’s origins are the same as it was literally celebrated among Catholics long before it became an officially recognized holiday with the only thing changing being the date of observance, and don’t we still generally have a ‘feast’ on that day to celebrate as well?
So two holidays to honor different parents. One mistakenly identified as pagan in origin because the names are so close, one clearly pagan in origin. I for one find it interesting which one the administration says we can celebrate and which one it says we can not. For nearly one hundred years under the guidance of Bro. Felix and Bro. Erano, we were never told of the supposed pagan origins of Mother’s Day, and I recall ministers wishing all mothers a happy Mother’s Day from the dais after the worship service had ended. This did not become an issue until a very specific event happened within the Church.
A discussion ensued yesterday regarding this topic. A brother suggested that its origin is irrelevant. Unlike Christmas and Halloween, for example, there are no pagan rituals associated with honoring your mother on this day; why should we let the actions of pagans dictate whether or not we honor our mothers? Should we not drink coffee in the morning because the practice was in all likelihood originally done by pagans (another tradition with no pagan rituals involved)?