They don’t make Mother’s Day like they used to. Signed into being with Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 Presidential Proclamation, the U.S. Mother’s Day holiday has been tainted with rampant commercialism almost from its inception.
Anna Jarvis, a stalwart Philadelphian, had made the holiday her mission since her mother’s death in 1905. Her late mother, Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis, herself a woman of spirit, had advocated for the creation of a Memorial Mother’s Day to honor the significant role of mothers in their families, churches and communities. In her native West Virginia, she had created Mother’s Day Work Clubs to address local issues of poor sanitation and epidemic diseases. During the Civil War, Jarvis’ mére urged the Mother’s Day Work Clubs to tend to the wounded of both the Union and Confederate soldiers. She was the real deal.
The younger Anna Jarvis, having achieved her goal of a Mother’s Day national holiday, was soon appalled by the commercial debasement of her noble cause. This was not the Mother’s Day for which she and her mother had militated. “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit,” she declared. She disdained the purchase of flowers and greeting cards as suitable maternal homage. Greeting cards, she said, were “a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write.”
In 1923 the doughty Ms. Jarvis launched a lawsuit against New York Governor Al Smith over a Mother’s Day celebration. When the suit was dismissed, she publicly protested, was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. This determined and feisty woman, as well as her mother, should be remembered today, beacons of integrity and fortitude in the sea of greeting cards, chocolates, flowers and restaurant dinners.
Mother’s Day is now observed across the nation by the ceremonial ka-ching of cash registers and swiping of charge cards. In terms of consumer spending, the holiday is second only to the Christmas-Hanukah-Kwanzaa juggernaut.
Americans are expected to spend $126.90 on Mother’s Day gifts this year, on average, with total spending likely to reach $14.6 billion. The breakdown? 1.9 billion spent on flowers, 2.9 billion on restaurants for Mother’s Day dining; 2.5 billion for jewelry for Mom. Another seven billion, give or take a billion, will be divvied up between Mom-inspired purchases of clothes and accessories, gift certificates, spa services and personal electronics (Hey, what mother doesn’t want an iPhone?) And those greeting cards so execrated by Anna Jarvis, the mother of Mother’s Day? Total sales of $671 million. Ka-ching!
Mothers—and Mother’s Day—deserve better. A woman, your mother, risks her life to bring you into the world, and to thank her you take her to Red Lobster? She nurtures and guides you from infancy into adulthood—and she gets a bouquet of commercially grown flowers? She transforms your family house into a home, and you reward her with earrings?
Mother’s Day gifts will never—can never—have a tangible value commensurate with a mother’s love, wisdom, sacrifices and hard work. What’s missing in the Mother’s Day trove of flowers, jewelry, nice restaurants and high-tech gimcracks is something more profound and more important: symbolism.
Symbolism speaks to the soul, engages the imagination, and provides lasting inspiration. You won’t find it online, in a department store or boutique. You can’t buy it, and it’s not for sale. There’s only one way you can get it or give it: you create it.
This year, for Mother’s Day, honor your mother as she deserves to be—create a garden for her.
People knew what was up in Neolithic times. Ten thousand years ago, there were annual celebrations honoring the Mother-Goddess, who was worshipped around the world as a symbol of fecundity and renewal. People made sacrifices to her. The Mother-Goddess gave birth to agriculture, and with it, culture and society. I wonder if they called her Mom.
A Mother’s Day garden mirrors the motifs of conventional Mother’s Day offerings—but revealed in their pure, original, authentic splendor. In the garden there are flowers and fragrance, beautiful things to see, delicious things to eat. The garden itself is a sanctuary, a spa for the senses. You could look at it as a restaurant, where your fellow diners are butterflies and hummingbirds.
The garden represents a sublime reflection of mothers and families. New life arises here, provided with a compatible habitat (e.g. the flower bed), nurtured into growth and bloom, and furnishing the seeds of coming generations. Are we not all seeds, and our mothers master gardeners? Yes, we are, and yes, she is.
Brothers and sisters, for our Mother’s Day offerings, let us replace products with produce, Red Lobster with red, ripe tomatoes, earrings with ears of corn. Let’s convey our gratitude, not with greeting cards, but with a message inscribed in flowers, fruits and vegetables, redolent with flavor, fragrance and color.
The garden connects us to the earth, the elements, the seasons, the past and future, the sun and stars, the life of the planet, the very origins of life. Now that’s a gift worthy of Mom.
Ms. Jarvis would, I think, agree.