FROM TODAY’S SUNDAY HERALD SUN by PATRICK CARLYON
SOME people say the meaning of Easter has been lost, but I won’t let that happen in my house. When my children are old enough, I’ll explain that naughty people were stoned to death, in Biblical times, with supermarket hot-cross buns purchased at three shekels a dozen after January 1 each year.
The commercialisation of meaningful dates is nothing new. Anna Jarvis, the Philadelphia “mother” of Mother’s Day, was so disheartened by the capitalist thirst of her creation that she tried to kill it. Call it her take on matricide infanticide.
Jarvis’s zeal of a century ago bears little resemblance to the gift-giving rituals of today. She was a feminist and a Christian of her era. She sought a commemoration of her own mother who had died several years earlier. Hers was an exchange based on carnations and handwritten notes. It was also an idea ripe for exploitation.
When it exploded into greeting card bonanzas and candymakers’ conventions, there was an arrest and, later, talk of madness. Jarvis, herself childless, was doomed to become history’s sideshow to her own circus.
Her mother, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, had tended to wounded soldiers from both sides of the American Civil War. She worked to lower infant mortality rates and improve sanitation.
On the second anniversary of her death in 1905, daughter Anna hosted a small gathering in Philadelphia. It wasn’t enough, not as a legacy for such an angelic life led. A year later, Anna Jarvis arranged for 500 white carnations to be handed out at a West Virginia church where her mother had taught Sunday school. So far, so good.
The Mother’s Day campaign spread to neighbouring cities and states until it enveloped the White House. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it an official day.
Anna Jarvis was suitably tickled by that, the fruit of a campaign involving thousands of letters to government officials.
She wrote a letter to Wilson: Mother’s Day would “perpetuate family ties and give emphasis to true family life”.
Yet like any self-respecting revolutionary, it was about then, at the moment of conquest, that Jarvis started to ponder the direction of her triumph. She had got she wanted. But she wasn’t receiving what she had aimed for.
The jackals, as she saw it, began to shred the love and meaning from the event. People didn’t understand. The occasion was not about purchases and profits, she yelled, but sentiments and sorrows.
Jarvis adopted the American way to such grievances, lots of banging about and threats of legal action. If there had been daytime TV in the 1920s, Jarvis would have been a fixture.
There was a commotion at a convention in 1923. Two years later, when Jarvis fronted the American War Mothers to complain about their selling of carnations, she was said to be pulled away by the police and charged with disturbing the peace.
Her bitterness zinged off the page. Florists, cardmakers and chocolate makers were “charlatans”, “bandits” and “pirates”. A printed card meant you “are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world”. Those who gave candy to their mothers ate “most of it” themselves. (Perhaps Jarvis did, and still does, have a few points.)
Jarvis stayed shouty until her death in 1948. She had made no money from Mother’s Day; instead, after inheriting a fortune, she died penniless in trying to slay the bastard child she had spawned.
The ironies are manifest, the tale almost as contradictory as the Nobel Peace Prize, given the double-pronged place that Alfred Nobel straddles in conflict resolution: he did, after all, invent dynamite. Jarvis’s protests were understandable enough, but they did fail to anticipate both international and future norms. If Mother’s Day had not been hijacked by commercial interests, it may not have endured at all.
It’s an annual event that still matters, however mercenary its underpinnings. Children of my vintage, for one, forged God-awful ashtrays, a pursuit which has since faded in favour of curious paint and crayon depictions.
One forgets with how much feeling such creative mishaps were once offered until they are received decades later.
Australians are stingier than Americans — an average Mother’s Day spend of $60-odd compared with double or more in the US. Still, the onslaught of magazine-family depictions, as cheesy as they are, seems a small price.
Consider the average Australian male and his aversion to any conversation that verges on emotional weightiness. Mother’s Day is when something heartfelt stands to be said when otherwise nothing would be said at all.
Even Anna Jarvis, if she’d stopped hollering in those final decades, would nod to the sentiment