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Happy Mother’s Day—Around the World, Through the Ages

by Steve Johnson (05/09/09).

We in the United States have a tenacious Philadelphia schoolteacher to thank for Mother’s Day. In 1907, Anna M. Jarvis decided her mother should be honored. And while Anna was at it, she figured she would campaign for a holiday celebrating all mothers.

Hence began a seven-year blitz on legislators and influential businessmen that ended in 1914 with President Woodrow Wilson signing a resolution that the second Sunday in May would be set aside to pay homage to that marvelous creature who went through childbirth.

We were hardly the first country to do so. If you look far enough back, the Greeks had a thing about Rhea, the mother of the gods. Today, many cultures celebrate a Mother’s Day. Although, in most countries, Mother’s Day is a relatively new concept borrowed from Western culture.

"My Mother" plaque

"My Mother" plaque

(The items pictured are featured on GoAntiques. Click the image for details.)

In many African countries, the idea of one Mother’s Day has its origins in copying the British concept of Mothering Day, although there are many festivals and events celebrating mothers within the many diverse cultures on the African continent that have been there for centuries long before the colonials arrived.

Argentina observes Mother’s Day — Día de la madre — on the second Sunday in October. It is customary to honor mothers with dinners, poems and special gestures of attention. Children write letters in school or make cards and crafts to take home.

Mother’s Day in Australia is similar to that in the United States, in which families visit each other and enjoy dinner together. In addition to flowers, cards, jewelry and chocolates, it is customary for Australians to exchange perfume and teas on Mother’s Day.

Longaberger Mother's Day basket

Longaberger Mother's Day basket

Like the rest of Europe, Britain and Ireland in the 17th century 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 on Mothering Sunday. In addition, cakes and flowers—especially violets—are given to mothers on Mother’s Day. It is customary to serve simnel cake, a glazed fruitcake.

In Bahrain, Mother’s Day is called Ruz-e Madar and coincides with the first day of spring, observed as March 21, as are the Mother’s Day celebrations in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.

Canada made Mother’s Day a national holiday in 1909. The Canadian customs largely reflect those of its southern neighbor, although in Canada there is an added emphasis on doing chores for the mother and cooking her supper.

Canada geese Mother's Day plate from Gorham

Canada geese Mother's Day plate from Gorham

canada-geese-mothere28099s-day-plate-from-gorham-2

While China’s Mother’s Day distinguishes itself little from the United States’, it is interesting to note that most Chinese names begin with a character signifying “mother” in honor of one’s maternal heritage, helping explain the cultural compatibility of such a holiday, despite being imported from the West.

Mother’s Day in Ethiopia occurs in mid-fall when the rainy season ends. Called Antrosht, Ethiopians celebrate by making their way home when the weather clears for a large family meal and a three-day-long celebration.

In Finland, Mother’s Day is called aidipayiva. In the morning, the family arises and takes a walk, picking the new flowers which bloom this time of year and making a bouquet for the mother. Back home, mother is presented with a decorated bouquet while being served breakfast in bed.

Inspired by American soldiers in World War I, France first celebrated Mother’s Day in 1918. The minister of the interior created the official day in 1920, declaring December 19 La Fête de Mères, Mothers’ Day. Today a common gift is a cake shaped to resemble a bouquet of flowers, along with candies, flowers, cards and perfumes.

Hong Kong’s holiday, called mu quin jie, is notable for its custom to pay honor to the parent of the mother if she is deceased.

In India, a westernized version of Mother’s Day is officially observed on May 10. On this day, mothers receive flowers, a prepared meal, cards or a phone call. Apart from the modern version of Mother’s Day, Hindus have long celebrated a 10-day festival in October called Durga Puja. This Hindu holiday praises the 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.

Batik painting of Durga

Batik painting of Durga

Italy celebrates La Festa della Mamma with a big feast and a cake made in the shape of a heart. Typically, Italian schoolchildren will make something to bring home to their mothers, and the family will take care of the chores for the day.

In Japan, Mother’s Day is called Haha no hi. From 1913 when Japanese Christians were already celebrating it, the holiday grew steadily in popularity. 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.

Mexico celebrates Día de la madre on May 10. 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.

Ecuadoran painting of mother and child

Ecuadoran painting of mother and child

Mother and child oil painting

Mother and child oil painting

The May 10th celebration of motherhood in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is called Yaum ul-Umm. It is inspired by and modeled after the Western tradition of Mother’s Day on which all mothers are honored and given gifts. Celebrations and feasts are customary.

In Singapore, Mother’s Day places a heavy emphasis on marketing a wide variety of gifts including spa packages, hampers, jewelry and other more traditional presents, such as flowers.

In Spain, Mother’s Day is December 8, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, so that not only mothers in one’s family are honored, but also Mary, mother of Jesus.

Sandra Kuck's Loving Steps china dolls

Sandra Kuck's Loving Steps china dolls

In Sweden, Mother’s Day takes place on the last Sunday in May and has a strong charitable focus: The Swedish Red Cross sells small plastic flowers leading up to the holiday, and the proceeds raised are given to poor mothers and their children.

Perhaps the most unusual Asian Mother’s Day holiday takes place in Thailand. The celebration coincides with the birthday of their beloved queen, Sirikit Kitiyakara, who has reigned since 1950. Her birthday, and therefore Mother’s Day, takes place on August 12.

Minnie Mouse Mother's Day plate

Minnie Mouse Mother's Day plate

With approximately 190 countries in the world, I have just touched the surface of celebrations. But to all mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, wherever you live, whatever you do, Happy Mother’s Day to each and every one of you.

Want to let your mother know how much you care? Send her WorthPoint’s “Happy Mother’s Day” video compiled from vintage postcards.

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