The majority of countries that celebrate Mother's Day do so on the second Sunday of May. On this day, it is common for Mothers to be lavished with presents and special attention from their families, friends and loved ones. But it wasn't always this way... Only recently dubbed “Mother's Day,” the highly traditional practice of honoring of Motherhood is rooted in antiquity, and past rites typically had strong symbolic and spiritual overtones; societies tended to celebrate Goddesses and symbols rather than actual Mothers. The personal, human touch to Mother’s Day is a relatively new phenomenon.
The maternal objects of adoration ranged from mythological female deities to the Christian Church itself. Only in the past few centuries did celebrations of Motherhood develop a decidedly human focus.
Goddess Isis - Early Egyptian Roots
One of the earliest historical records of a society celebrating a Mother deity can be found among the ancient Egyptians, who held an annual festival to honor the goddess Isis, who was commonly regarded as the Mother of the pharaohs. Her stern, yet handsome head is typically crowned by a pair of bull horns enclosing a fiery sun orb. She is most often depicted sitting on a throne.
So the story goes, after Isis’ brother-husband Osiris was slain and dismembered in 13 pieces by their jealous brother Seth, Isis re-assembled Osiris’ body and used it to impregnate herself. She then gave birth to Horus, whom she was forced to hide amongst the reeds lest he be slaughtered by Seth. Horus grew up and defeated Seth, and then became the first ruler of a unified Egypt. Thus Isis earned her stature as the Mother of the pharaohs.
It is interesting to note that the Mother and Son imagery of Isis and Horus—in which Isis cradles and suckles her son—is strikingly similar to that of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.
Cybele - Ancient Roman Celebration
The festival of Isis was also celebrated by the Romans who used the event to commemorate an important battle and mark the beginning of Winter. Despite being an imported deity, Isis held a place at the Roman temple, and her festival—which lasted for three days—was regaled by mostly-female dancers, musicians and singers.
Yet the Roman root of Mother’s Day is perhaps more precisely found in the celebration of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, or Magna Mater (Great Mother).
Cybele stems from the Greek Goddess Rhea, who was the Mother of most of the major deities including Zeus. Rhea was therefore celebrated as a mother goddess, and the festival took place around the time of the Vernal Equinox.
Greek Celebration of Rhea, the Mother of the Gods
In Rome and Asia Minor, Cybele was the major Mother deity most similar to Rhea, the Greek mother of the Gods. Other societies worshipped similar deities including Gaia the Earth Goddess and Meter oreie the Mountain Mother. In many aspects, this Mother goddess was represented and celebrated similarly across cultures.
The Anatolian mother goddess festivals, however, were said to be so wild that they were eventually discouraged or banned. But more conservative celebrations of Cybele and her equivalents included eating honey cakes and sharing flowers in the morning. This was practiced throughout Asia Minor—and eventually in Rome.
The Roman celebration of Magna Mater fell between March 15 and March 22, just around the same time as the Greek festival in honor of Rhea. Referred to as Hilaria, games were held in honor of the Mother of the gods. Also customary was a procession through the streets with a statue of the goddess carried at the head, followed by a display of elaborate arts and crafts.
European Celebration - Celebrating Lent & Mother Church
A later incarnation of a holiday to honor Motherhood came from Europe. It fell on the fourth Sunday Lent (the 40 days of fasting preceding Easter Sunday). Early Christians initially used the day to honor the church in which they were baptized, which they knew as their “Mother Church.” This place of worship would be decorated with jewels, flowers and other offerings.
Family Gatherings With Mom
In the 1600's a clerical decree in England broadened the celebration to include real Mothers, referring to the day as Mothering Day. Mothering Day became an especially compassionate holiday toward the working classes of England. During this Lenten Sunday, servants and trade workers were allowed to travel back to their towns of origin to visit their families. Mothering Day also provided a one-day reprieve from the fasting and penance of Lent so that families across England could enjoy a family feast—Mother was the guest of honor. Mothers were presented with cakes and flowers, as well as a visit from their beloved and distant children.
Worldwide Spread of Mother's Day
Here are some of the ways in which Mother's Day has spread throughout the rest of the world:
Though most of South America observes Mother's Day—Día de la madre—in May, Argentina celebrates on the second Sunday in October. Due to the country’s geographical station in the southern hemisphere, it could be argued that this choice of a date for the holiday more accurately coincides with the traditional springtime seasonality of the Motherhood festivities.
It is customary to honor Argentinean Mothers with dinners, poems and special gestures of attention. Children write letters in school or make cards and crafts to take home. Husbands cook and clean and look after the family, allowing the mother to relax and enjoy the day. Moms are almost certain to receive flowers, cards, candy, jewelry or an unexpected surprise.
One example of an Argentinean Mother’s Day surprise party involves young children gathering their mothers together, encircling them in a room or hallway and reading them poetry. After the reading, a door at the end of the hall is opened to let in all the children’s grandmothers who have remained in hiding up till then. Jubilation ensues.
Inspired by American soldiers in World War I, France celebrated other's Day first in 1918. The Minister of the Interior created the official day in 1920, declaring December 19 La Fete de Meres, Mothers’ Day. The focus then was on the re-population of France following the high rate of attrition from the Great War (aka WWI). Mothers with four or five children were awarded a bronze medal. For six or seven the mother would receive a silver medal, and eight or more offspring garnered the gold. This tradition was abandoned when a more modern version of Mother's Day came from the Vichy government, which on May 25, 1945, instituted the National Day of Mothers. Today a common gift is a cake shaped to resemble a bouquet of flowers, along with candies, flowers, cards and perfumes.
A westernized version of Mother's Day is officially observed on May 10 in India, though cities and cultural centers tend to celebrate it more than the smaller settlements. On this day mothers receive flowers, a prepared meal, cards or a phone call.
Yet apart from the modern version of Mother’s Day, Hindus have long celebrated a 10 day festival in October called Durga Puja. As the ancient Greeks honored their earth goddess, the Hindu holiday praises their divine mother, Durga. This ancient festival has evolved into one of the biggest events in India. Families spend weeks preparing food and gifts for friends and cleaning and decorating their houses for parties. Businesses and companies now capitalize and plan their own special promotions for the event, much the same way American businesses have tapped into the market potential of Mother's Day.
The Japanese call Mother's Day haha no hi. In 1913, Japanese Christians were already celebrating it, based on the American practice. It grew steadily in popularity and in the 1930's it was especially prevalent. That changed during WWII when the practice was banned along with all other western customs.
After the war, however, the tradition was taken up again to help comfort to the Mothers who had lost children in the war. By 1949, the celebration of Mother's Day had again spread throughout the country. The Japanese began holding an art contest for children. The children would enter drawings of their Mothers, and the winning drawings would tour through Japan and other countries in an art exhibit celebrating Mothers and peace. This contest was held every four years.
Today the Japanese celebrate Mother's Day on the second Sunday of May. A family may prepare and enjoy traditional dishes that their mothers taught them to cook. The Japanese give their Mothers flowers (especially red carnations), scarves, handkerchiefs and handbags.
On May 10th the Mexicans celebrate the Día de las madres. In 1922 a journalist, Rafael Alducín wrote an article advocating the celebration of Mother's Day in all of Mexico. Though the practice had already spread to parts of Mexico, Alducín’s article led to widespread observance of the holiday, and May 10 is the universal day of celebration in Mexico. In the morning the mother is usually treated to a song sung by her family, or a serenade by a hired band. A family breakfast or brunch is also customary. Any family trouble or enmity is laid aside and all gather to honor the matriarch.
Mexicans typically exchange flowers and chocolates. Cards are very popular, and apparently May 10 is the largest day for card sending in Mexico. Phone calls are also customary if the child cannot make it to see their mother.
Like the rest of Europe, England and Ireland observed the mid-Lent holiday and honored and decorated their “Mother Church,” the church where they were baptized. The church eventually extended the observation to honor all mothers. The English called this Mothering Sunday and, in the 1700's they observed it by taking a break from the fasting and penitence of Lent and having a family feast. Children would make a rare journey home from their apprenticeships and jobs to spend the day with their mother and family. Mothering Sunday fell out of practice in the early 1900's. After WWII, however, the islanders once again picked up the tradition, inspired largely by the United States. Today the UK’s Mother’s Day continues in much the same way as the old tradition, with cards and dinners in honor of Mom.
In addition, cakes and flowers—especially violets—are given to Mom on Mother’s Day in the United Kingdom. It is customary to serve Simnel Cake, a glazed fruitcake inspired by a folk tale about a married couple, Simon and Nell. So the story goes, this pair could not decide bake or broil a cake. So in the end they did both. Thus Simnel Cake was born.
Tied to a three day series of holidays, the Mother's Day cycle in Yugoslavia begins with Children's Day or “Dechiyi Dan” three days before Christmas. The following Sunday is Mother's Day or “Materitse”, and the Sunday after that is Father's Day or “Ochichi.”
On Children's Day the children are tied up and not released until they promise to be good. On Mother's day the mother is bound. To earn her freedom she must give the family treats and candy. The father gets tied the next Sunday but must promise more lavish gifts, clothing or shoes, and these items are usually the family's Christmas gifts.
The typical gifts exchanged include candy, sweets, clothing, shoes, coats—and promises of good behavior.