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What Do Mother’s Day and Memorial Day Have in Common?

Mother with child and American Flag.

Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. Both are in May, but otherwise it’s hard to imagine two days more different: flowers, candy and family dinners versus barbeques, parades and ball games. But the holidays share more than the calendar — both arose from revulsion to the horrors of the Civil War.

Valhalla, Mythic Home of Fallen Warriors.
Valhalla, Mythic Home of Fallen Warriors.1

People have long paid homage to their mothers and war heroes. Ancient Greeks and Romans celebrated their mother goddess; fallen Nordic warriors were thought to live with gods in Valhalla. But early Americans had no such celebrations.

Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day was born from the separate efforts of several activist women. One was Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Dismayed by the loss of life in the Civil War and Franco-Prussian War, Howe issued a Proclamation for a Mothers’ Day for Peace in 1870. She wanted women to unite so that mothers of one nation would not allow their sons to be trained to kill those of another. Woman’s Peace Festivals were held in Boston and other cities on June 2, 1873. They continued for several years, but the day never caught on.

U.S. Airmen marching in Mother's Day Parade in Belgium, May 13, 1945.
U.S. Airmen Marching in Mother’s Day Parade in Belgium, May 1945.2

The woman who created the national holiday was Anna Jarvis. Her mother, Ann Jarvis had founded mothering clubs in the 1850s to help improve social conditions. Located in West Virginia, they were at the boundary between North and South. During the war, club members pledged to continue their friendship and goodwill and nursed soldiers from both sides. Later Mrs. Jarvis organized a Mothers Friendship Day to help reunite families divided by the war.

Following her mother's death in 1905, daughter Anna began the political effort to create a public holiday. Her efforts succeeded when the second Sunday in May was made a national holiday in 1914.

Decoration Day post card shwoing woman decorating a soldier's grave.
Woman Decorating Soldier’s Grave.3

Memorial Day. The holiday we celebrate as Memorial Day began with the Civil War practice of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. This had been done after the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. In May 1865, recently freed African-Americans decorated the graves of Union soldiers in Charleston, S.C. Such observances were referred to as Decoration Days.

Both North and South continued this tradition after the war. In 1868 General John Logan, commander of the Union veterans’ organization, called for May 30th to be designated Decoration Day for the purpose of “strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” The date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any specific battle.

In the South, post-war Reconstruction govern­ments did not honor Confederate losses. Instead, ladies’ associations marked and maintained the graves. The leading role of women was noted by the Richmond Dispatch in an 1870 editorial, commenting:

“It is the more impressive when … woman’s warm heart impels the observance, and the tribute paid to departed valor is only the placing of Spring’s brightest flowers upon the graves in which the soldiers’ bones repose.”
Memorial Day flags on Boston Common in Front of Soldiers and Sailors Monument
Memorial Day Flags on Boston Common, 2015.4

Northern states standardized celebration on May 30th. By 1890 it was a holiday in every northern state. Former Confederate states chose different days. They did not celebrate May 30th until after World War  I, when the holiday was changed to honor those who died in any war, not just the Civil War.

There is no official connection between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, yet it is interesting to note how both arose from the shared experience of the nineteenth century’s “Greatest Generation.”

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  1. Entry of the Gods into Valhalla, from Richard Wagner's opera Das Rheingold. Photo Beatriz Schiller, Metropolitan Opera.
  2. Men of the 386th Bomb Group participate in Mother’s Day parade in St. Trond, Belgium, May 13, 1945. Image available at Ancestry.com.
  3. Postcard by C. Bunnell, published by Fred C. Lounsbury in 1908. Image from Smithsonian Institution.
  4. Each flag honors a Massachusetts resident killed in war since the Revolution. The monument at the back was built in 1877 to honor Massachusetts residents who died in the Civil War.

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