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Muttertag: A history of Mother's Day in Germany and abroad

Muttertag: A history of Mother's Day in Germany and abroad

Every year on the second Sunday of May, Germany (and many other countries around the world) marks International Mother's Day, a day to honour motherhood. While not an official holiday, this day is an opportunity for families to spend some quiet time at home together. It has a fascinating history and over time has sprouted many different traditions all around the world. Let's take a look. 

The history of Mother's Day starts with Mothering Sunday

The idea of celebrating mothers goes back a long, long way. In Greek and Roman times, festivals were held in honour of the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. However, the precedent for modern-day Mother’s Day comes from the early Christian festival called “Mothering Sunday.”

Mothering Sunday was once a major tradition in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, falling on the fourth Sunday of Lent. It was seen as a time when the faithful would return to their “mother church”, or the main church in the area, for a special service. Over time, the Mothering Sunday holiday became a more secular holiday, where children would gift their mothers flowers or other tokens of appreciation.

Mother’s Day gained more popularity in the 1930s and 1940s after it was merged with the American Mother’s Day.

Mother's Day in America

A different kind of Mother's Day was first conceived of in the USA in the early 20th century. Following the death of her mother, a woman named Anna Jarvis pushed for the creation of a Mother's Day to honour mothers and the sacrifices they make for their children. Following a successful campaign, in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure which officially established the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day: a day for children to honour their mothers. 

Interestingly, Anna Jarvis was vehemently against the commercialisation of Mother's Day. Her intent for the holiday was a day of personal celebration for mothers, so she felt that the connection with gifts and cards took away from the original purpose of the holiday. She went as far as to denounce the holiday completely, and even lobbied the government to have it removed from the American calendar. 

How do other countries mark Mother's Day?

Jarvis may not have been a fan, but this commercial iteration of Mother's Day spread far and wide, and many countries to this day have their own version of the celebration. Although global Mother's Days come in many different shapes and forms, flowers and cards are a recurring theme. 

In Japan, white carnations are presented to mothers to symbolise the sweetness and endurance of motherhood. This current tradition was adopted after World War II to comfort mothers who had lost children in the war.

In Ethiopia, at the end of the rainy season in early autumn, the Antrosht festival is dedicated to mothers. After the monsoon season ends, families head to their homes for a large meal and celebration, where traditionally the girls bring vegetables and cheese, and the boys bring meat. Together, the family prepares the food while singing stories about their families.

In Peru, Mother's Day is not a single-day event, but a week-long festival. Families organise meals, trips, and parties in honour of their mothers. Cities stage art shows and musical performances, and mothers visit museums, exhibits and festivals throughout the whole week. Another unique aspect is that people visit the graves of their late mothers, grandmothers, and other maternal figures to honour them by offering flowers and balloons. 

In the Netherlands, Mother's Day is referred to as "Moederdag", and is a day where children pamper their mothers for an entire day. The children will make breakfast in bed and give their mothers a gift. Some Dutch schools also help the children make gifts for their mothers the week before Moederdag.

In Switzerland, the Salvation Army established Mother's Day in 1917, but until the 1920s the holiday was only observed by a small number of people. In the 1930s, however, the press, florists and master confectioners joined efforts to give the holiday a major boost. Swiss children typically celebrate Mother's Day by bringing their mothers breakfast in bed, gifting flowers or other small trinkets.

Mother's Day in Germany

In Germany, Mother's Day (Muttertag) is usually celebrated on the second Sunday of May, unless this happens to be the Pentecost (Pfingstsonntag), and then Mother's Day is celebrated a week earlier, on the first Sunday of May. Fathers are honoured with their own day - Vatertag - later in the year. 

Although British and American influences are clear in the German Mother's Day, the holiday also has its own German history, stretching back to a day of celebration that used to be held in the state of Thuringia in spring. Families would take a day off work to visit relatives, and mark the renewal of the seasons - and mothers were considered another symbol of life and fertility. 

It wasn't until the 1920s, with the influence of the official American holiday, that Mother's Day began to be celebrated routinely across Germany. In 1933, the day took on a special significance as the National Socialists declared Muttertag an official holiday and, as part of their propagandistic, idealised view of motherhood, manufactured their own traditions surrounding the day, including the bestowing of the Mutterkreuz - a medal for mothers who gave birth to four or more "Aryan" children. 

After 1945, the day had the political sting taken out of it, and mothers have since typically been honoured with cards, flowers and presents rather than bronze, silver and gold medals. Mothers often also get other tokens of appreciation, including phone calls, breakfast in bed, or fancy meals out. Some families also take white flowers to the graves of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers. 

Do you celebrate Mother's Day in your home country? How is it typically marked? Let us know in the comments below!

This article originally appeared on IamExpat in Switzerland.

Eesha Wirk

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Eesha Wirk

Eesha studied in the United States, obtaining a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience and Studio Art. She is currently getting her Research Masters in Cognitive Neuropsychology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. In...

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