Mother’s Day: thinking beyond cards and flowers

With the UK spending a second Mother’s Day in lockdown, this emotive occasion may be feeling particularly challenging. Becky investigates the history of the celebration...

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Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Community Co-Ordinator, Becky Hughes

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in Horsham, West Sussex in 1855.  The company now has a further three offices across the county – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint – and remains independent and family-run.  This weekend, the UK celebrates Mother’s Day so Community Co-ordinator, Becky, provides some background, in addition to a message for those who find this time of year difficult.

Being tasked with launching a brand’s social media presence is a big responsibility, but this is magnified when said brand is well-established.  Coupled with the subject matter being largely unappealing, not only do you have responsibility but also the job of force-feeding the digital world information that it may choose to firmly ignore.  This is the position I was in when I joined Freeman Brothers in 2017.

Although we had a website, we had no blog or news content on it and we didn’t use any social media platforms.  The work began with developing a basic strategy, which was to inform the public, broaden our audience and establish more digital content.  I wanted our digital communication to match our existing varieties and was pleased that, as a brand, we have always communicated both effectively and sensitively.  To that end, I suggested that we maintain a respectful silence of certain occasions, namely things such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  Not only are these events incredibly sensitive for many people, for a variety of reasons, but awareness of this fact has only increased in recent years.

Throughout 2020 however, the world changed significantly and, with death, dying and bereavement far higher up the public agenda than ever before, the time feels right to adjust our thinking.  Having established our voice firmly, I am now confident that we can not only handle this issue, but that we also should, and that the public is more prepared for us to add our thoughts at this time.

The Mother’s Day we recognise today in the UK is a co-opting of the Christian occasion of Mothering Sunday so (in what some may say is a fitting reflection of stereotypically-feminine sacrifice) UK mothers share ‘their’ day with an established event.  This isn’t the case for Father’s Day (check back in June: the story behind its origin is really interesting!) and – arguably – other nations celebrating Mother’s Day at a different time of year is more appropriate as Mums then have a day that is truly theirs!

Traditionally, Mothering Sunday is a time when parishioners return to their ‘Mother Church’: the one at which they received Baptism.  Since the Middle Ages, Mothering Sunday has coincided with mid-Lent Sunday.  The Gospel for the day is John 6:1-14 – the feeding of the five thousand – leading to the day to being associated with the ‘gifts of Mother Earth’.  This is also where the relaxation of fasting and other Lent-based restrictions originates: those observing Mothering Sunday would enjoy varieties of cakes and buns, particularly Simnel cake, which is also associated with Easter.  This tradition has remained, in some parts of the world, with the consumption of special ‘mothering buns’.

The contemporary and more-secular Mother’s Day tradition began in the US and continues to be celebrated during the period established by its founder, Anna Jarvis, however the establishment and continued celebration of Mother’s Day there was not without controversy.  Arguably, Anna did create Mother’s Day in memory of her own mother, Ann, who died on 9th May 1905: with Mother’s Day in the US continuing to be celebrated on the second Sunday in May, this is a clear nod to the anniversary of Ann Jarvis’ death.

Born in Virginia in 1832, Ann’s life’s work was centred on the wellbeing of mothers and the building of communities. She herself suffered many losses, bearing between 11 and 13 children, only four of whom (including Anna) survived to adulthood.  Whilst pregnant with her sixth child, she established Mothers’ Day Work Clubs, across five towns, with the aim of improving education and sanitation and therefore combating infant mortality.  Her brother, James, was a physician who specialised in typhoid and the group benefited from his expertise.

When the Civil War broke out, Ann’s area was heavily divided and her own principles quickly shone through: she led her group with the attitude of neutrality, insisting that they support families and soldiers on both sides of the fight.  After the war, Ann created a Mothers’ Friendship Day event, designed to heal community rifts.  Although threatened with violence, the event was successfully held in 1868, culminating in people from both sides singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which reportedly brought many present to tears.

Anna Jarvis recalled, during her childhood, her mother praying for the creation of an event that celebrated mothers, which is what inspired her to honour her own mother’s memory as she did. After several years of campaigning, President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed Mother’s Day a holiday in 1914.

Unfortunately, this led to the steady commercialism of Mother’s Day; something which Anna hadn’t bargained for. She hated this fact, ultimately working for a reversal of the proclamation.  She spent her final days in a sanatorium where, having herself not profited from Mother’s Day following the commercialisation of it, those connected with the floral and greetings card industries subsequently funded the fees for her upkeep.  When Anna died, she was buried with her mother, sister and brother in Pennsylvania.

Though for many Mother’s Day this year will be a time of sadness rather than celebration, it’s reductive to assume that it will only be hard for those whose Mums have died, and particularly those whose bereavement is recent.  Awareness increasingly demonstrates that bereavement has no time limit and that some of us feel the loss of a loved one for the remainder of our own lives, rather than a finite period following the death itself.  In addition, the sensation of loss isn’t merely a result of death: some people are estranged from their families, either via circumstance or choice, which can result in pain around events where relationships with our families are highlighted.  In recent years, there has also been increased awareness of the fact that people feel bereaved for reasons other than the death or estrangement of their own mother, perhaps as a result of pregnancy or baby loss, the death of a child, or struggles with fertility and other difficult journeys to parenthood.

One positive aspect of this raised awareness is that the communications of many brands has improved.  It’s now well-publicised that many companies sending out marketing messages about Mother’s Day gifts or experiences allow people to opt-out of receiving these particular communications.  This may seem small or inconsequential to many people, but it makes a huge difference to those who find this time of year hard.  Our inboxes are something that we can and should have agency over: whereas it’s not possible to cancel events like Christmas or Mother’s Day for the wider world, and therefore avoid seeing displays in shops (when they’re open!) or advertising on TV (although we do also have the option of changing the channel or moving to a different room in this instance), it can feel incredibly hurtful to receive a message directly to our personal device about an occasion we have no wish to celebrate.

On a personal note, Mother’s Day always makes me think of Spring arriving and the clocks changing to British Summer Time. To me, it feels as though the seasonal shift is ushering in some much-needed positivity. Whatever your circumstances, we want to share a message of hope and peace: hope that time offers even a small amount of healing, and that the day passes slightly more peacefully with each year.


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Written by Becky Hughes

Community Co-Ordinator

March 10, 2021

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