There are two weeks between Mother’s Day in the United States and France, the former taking place on the second Sunday in May and the latter on the last. But calendars aside, their totally distinct origins sum up just how different our two societies really are.
Mother’s Day in the U.S.A. was started in a Methodist church in West Virginia in 1908 by a parishioner, Anna Jarvis, who wanted to honor all mothers, starting with her own. As an activist close to the traditions of the suffragettes and the Temperance movement, Anna Jarvis succeeded in imposing the day as a national celebration in 1914, following a decision from Congress. But the story doesn’t end there, as business soon took up the torch from religion. Sellers of roses and greeting cards went on to exploit the celebration to the point of obliging the public to buy their products. Today, Mother’s Day generates 50% of earnings for U.S. greeting card companies.
In France, Marshall Petain is often credited with the creation of la Fête des Mères in 1942, but this is not entirely accurate. Several French provinces traditionally celebrated mothers of large families from the 1920s onwards, most probably to compensate for the losses in World War I and to secularize the cult of the Virgin Mary. However, we can thank Petain, with his ideology of “Travail, Famille, Patrie,” for transforming it into a national celebration that subsists today. Many institutions from the Vichy Regime were continued by the subsequent French Republic, and Mother’s Day in France was made official in 1950 by the mainly conservative National Assembly.
In both our countries, the origins of Mother’s Day and la Fête des Mères have been forgotten, which is a shame. The custom still remains, but it would be wonderful if everyone would add a little extra affection.