Mother’s Day: A marketing miracle or a day worth celebrating?

Happy Mother’s Day! | Photo by Dakota Corbin

Earlier this week, I decided to write an article for Mother’s Day. Having never done anything like it, I didn’t know much about its history. So I did a little research (thank you Google!) and learnt a few things that made me think of the question that this article starts with:

Is Mother’s Day, as we know it today, a remarkably successful money-minting marketing gimmick or is it a day worth celebrating with our families?

The short answer to both is yes and yes.

The long answer? Well, here you go:

A road paved with good intentions

In 1908, a daughter held a memorial for her mother at Saint Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. Over the next decade, she successfully campaigned for the second Sunday in May to be celebrated every year as Mother’s Day. Thanks to Anna Marie Jarvis’s efforts, and 110 years later, sons and daughters in the US will spend over $23 billion this week to show they care.

Anna Marie Jarvis, the founder of Mother’s Day | Source: ExplorePAHistory.com

Ms. Jarvis envisioned Mother’s Day to honor the most important person in our lives. She hoped for each family to honor its own mother, a personal ‘thank you’ to the woman that nurses and nags but never stops worrying about her children. In 2017, in the US alone, almost 78% of people surveyed planned to buy their mom a greeting card. Here’s what Ms. Jarvis had to say of this idea a century ago:

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother — and then eat most of it yourself. A petty sentiment.

Even the white carnations that she sent to everyone who attended the first official observance of Mother’s Day didn’t escape commercial interests. She sent white carnations because they were her mother’s favorite. Here’s what she thought they symbolized:

Its whiteness is to symbolize the truth, purity and broad-charity of mother love; its fragrance, her memory, and her prayers. The carnation does not drop its petals, but hugs them to its heart as it dies, and so, too, mothers hug their children to their hearts, their mother love never dying. When I selected this flower, I was remembering my mother’s bed of white pinks.

Soon after its first observance, Mother’s Day became a “blockbuster” sales day for florists. The floral industry increased prices of white carnations and introduced red carnations to meet the demand. Now, you can buy an entire bouquet’s worth of colors in flowers — they come in packages for Mother’s Day — each with a different meaning if you ask someone that understands floriography.

Gift ideas are great but…

I asked friends how they planned to celebrate this Mother’s Day and all I got was a list of gift items — hair dryers, flowers, cake, jewelry, spa sessions and so on. So I decided to search online for a “unique” idea and found another list — photo frames, bird feeders, handbags, wine, and even sunglasses!

Amazon India’s gift section for Mother’s Day 2018 | Source: Amazon India

While this paints a grim picture of how much commercial interests have taken over a day meant to be a personal celebration of a mother’s love, it doesn’t mean we should stop celebrating Mother’s Day.

We just need to make it personal and make a genuine effort to thank our moms.

I also came across an opinion piece by Margaret Renkl in The New York Times titled The Mother’s Day Trap. Mrs. Renkl, a mother of three, writes about how Mother’s Day reinforces the cultural belief that motherhood is the climax of female life. It’s not, not for every woman. Yet she ends the piece with a poignant note on what will happen this Mother’s Day:

I will love having them all home for Mother’s Day, but in one tiny little corner of my mind I will also be missing the days when they were still so small and so needy, when the family circle was still close and closed. I will miss the smell of their sweaty little-boy necks and the feel of their damp fingers clutching my blouse as I bounced them on my hip. And I will remember all the years when Mother’s Day meant crayoned cards and plaster-of-Paris handprints and weedy bouquets made of clover and henbit and creeping Charlie and dandelion. The most beautiful flowers in all the world.

I was touched, and a little ashamed. I’ve rarely celebrated Mother’s Day, and I am now older than my mother was when she first became one. I thought I was rebelling against a society that promotes buying things for mothers over spending time with them (not that I did much of that either!). After reading a mother’s view of what she’ll love the most about Mother’s Day, I wanted to hear from more people.

So I spoke to a few more friends and their mothers. Every mother I spoke to wanted one thing above all — to spend some time with her kids, the ones that are now all grown up and busy all the time. And very few of the kids (my friends) had any idea! Instead they were busy searching for gift ideas online. Sigh.

This was a learning experience for me. To think of it, I didn’t even know of Anna Jarvis until recently. I didn’t know anything about how much people spend on Mother’s Day gifts though I knew (somehow) that it was a lot. And I was inspired by Mrs. Renkl’s piece to do right by my mother this time. Spend some time with her, take her around the city (I’m new here and she’s visiting!), and call her every week rather than once in a blue moon.

Our time and undivided attention

Spending your hard-earned money to buy a gift is not a bad idea, who doesn’t like one? Going out for dinner with mom is a great idea too, she’ll love it! If you really want to give her a card, how about making one yourself? More importantly, spend some time with mom and talk about random things, go on a road trip or even cook something together. If you stay in different cities, call her once a week (or twice) and ask about her day. Or just call her every day. Even better, use apps like WhatsApp, Skype, or Facebook Messenger to get her on a video call. It’s up to each of us to make an effort — our time and our undivided attention is the greatest gift of all.

Postcard issued by the Northern Pacific Railway for Mother’s Day 1915 | Source: Wikimedia Commons

I close this piece knowing that Mother’s Day is a marketing gimmick — a well-executed campaign that has been reaping dividends for years. And it will continue to be a moneymaker for the jewelry, hospitality, greeting card, and gift card industries for years to come.

But if playing along (a little) and celebrating it with mom makes her happy, well then, we ought to celebrate it a lot more often, don’t we?


Authored by Kesava Mandiga, who is busy cleaning house in anticipation of his mother’s visit. Also, a content marketer at Flock.