For those of us who think of Mother’s Day as a recent Hallmark holiday, the historic celebration of mothers reaches back to ancient times. In classical Greek mythology, ancient Greeks honored the goddess Rhea, mother of all the gods. She was closely identified with her Roman counterpart Cybele, goddess of nature and fertility. Cybele was revered throughout the Roman Empire with festivals held in her honor and mysterious rites involving sacrifice performed in her name. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Isis, goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility.
As the celebration of Mother’s Day transitioned from the symbolic and spiritual to honoring actual human mothers, early Christians in England had a holiday that fell on the fourth Sunday of Lent, called Mothering Day. On this day servants and trade workers were allowed to travel back to their families of origin, and the fasting of Lent was suspended so that mothers could be honored during sumptuous family meals.
The Mothering Day tradition was not continued by early settlers to America. In 1861 Julia Ward Howe, abolitionist and author of Battle Hymn of the Republic, called for a national celebration for motherhood and peace. Initial celebrations in 18 cities died out after Julia stopped funding them.
Anna Jarvis took up the torch for a national holiday honoring mothers and after a campaign of several years, her efforts paid off. President Woodrow Wilson established a national Mother’s Day in 1914, celebrated since then every second Sunday in May.