Making the Mother’s Day monster (“commercial aspect … to be kept concealed”)

A holiday (or holy-day) reveals what a people finds, or is expected to find, sacred. So, Australia officially celebrates such things as the birth and death of a religious leader, the nominal birthday of the highest political figure, workers’ success in reducing hours, horse races – that sort of thing.

We’ve just had Anzac Day, which celebrates war over peace. And today is our Mother’s Day, and in other countries that follow the U.S. lead, and an automatic holiday, because “the second Sunday in May” is a God-given holiday.

Can you already see the core dilemma of our times? – commercialism as the new sacred. As in no long paying workers a bonus for working on traditional holy-days. As in interest groups promoting their trade, charity or political cause through “days”, “weeks” and, in the case of the United Nations, “years”.

The supermarket chain calling themselves the “Fresh Food People” recently marketed the claim that dead soldiers were “fresh” in our memories. Incredibly, no-one in Woolworths knew it is illegal to use “Anzac” (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) for commercial purposes – no selling even of “Anzac biscuits”. (The corporation appears then to have spread a rumour that its campaigns are run from London.)

My interest in holidays started with the oddity of how we, in the southern hemisphere, celebrate Christmas and Easter wrongly by six months – such feasts originally marked the seasons, before calendars.

SV300357 (2)I’ve only now paid much attention to Mother’s Day, other than both decrying its commercialisation, while knowing our restaurant would be full that day. I hadn’t realised it was such an ethical, political, festival monster. Motherhood – sacred, and an even more sacred marketing opportunity.

It’s perfect blackmail – if you don’t celebrate (i.e., pay up), you don’t love your mother.

One less-commercial answer is not to buy cards, gifts, flowers and restaurant meals by relieving mother of the cooking for the day. But why only on that day – aren’t women liberated?

So what I have just learned? Firstly, an invaluable resource indicates where to place the apostrophe (and we are interested in apostrophes). Apparently, in trademarking the phrases “Mother’s Day” and “second Sunday in May” in 1912, Anna Jarvis declared:

“Mother’s” should be a singular possessive, for each family to honor its mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers of the world.

But was Anna Jarvis (borrowed photo at the top) even the founder of Mother’s Day? Some quick research reveals that its invention is as confused as any other.

Let me explain origin myths. My researches (along with Helen Leach and others) have found that named cakes and biscuits almost invariably come with competing stories, none of which is exactly correct. It’s even impossible to declare definitively whether the Pavlova was invented in Australia or New Zealand. That’s the sacred national dish for both of us (and so let’s both declare Pavlova Day!)

What happens is that they are social inventions, by many hands, but through social construction, people endow the apparent solidity of a distinct concept that therefore must have a definite inventor. Or so it seems. To read more, check out my papers, “The confection of a nation” and “The cleverness of the whole number” – available through here or here.

The web tells all kinds of origin myths about today’s “Hallmark holiday”, including Anna Jarvis’s struggles against florists’ exploitation of her mother’s favourite flower, a white carnation. It’s said she devoted all her money to that second campaign, only to have the florist industry secretly pay her nursing home bills, such was their gratitude for having exploited her story.

We might suspect that’s another florists’ myth. Nonetheless, accredited scholars have interesting stuff to say. Not that they agree.

Apparently, social activist Julia Ward Howe’s Appeal to womanhood throughout the world (later known as Mother’s Day Proclamation) called on women to unite for peace. Written in 1870, Howe’s was a pacifist reaction to the carnage of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. It was also a feminist push at the political level. In 1872, Howe unsuccessfully sought government backing for a “Mother’s Day for Peace” on 2 June every year.

And Wikipedia claims: “The modern Mother’s Day is an unrelated celebration and it was established by Anna Jarvis years later.”

That is probably incorrect, contradicted by Katharine Lane Antolini in Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day, 2014.

The encyclopaedia for our times is relying on an earlier book, Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays, 1995. Despite (or because of) doing much research into Jarvis, he failed to find any association between the pacifist Mother’s Days and her version. And yet Schmidt knew that Anna Jarvis set out to honour a mother who would appear to have been a pacifist, involved with the earlier version, and organising “special rituals of reconciliation after the Civil War”. These Mothers’ Friendship celebrations brought together neighbours on the border regions, which the Civil War had split.

Schmidt makes much of Anna Jarvis’ insistence that “Mother’s Day celebrations … were founded by me”. Yet she had to defend her holy day from appropriation from not just religious and political interests, but also commercial, as Schmidt shows so well. His earlier paper, “The commercialization of the calendar”, concentrates on Mother’s Day, and is worth reading.

When after a long illness her mother died on May 9, 1905, Jarvis was devastated. In another irony, Jarvis was saddened that her mother’s hopes to have a college education had been thwarted by “home responsibilities”, and her “pleasure and ambitions … restrained by the ties of motherhood”.

The American calendar, Anna Jarvis insisted, was permeated by patriarchy:

New Year’s Day is for “Old Father Time”, Washington’s Birthday is for “The Father of his Country”. … Memorial Day is for Departed Fathers. Independence Day is for Patriot Fathers…. Thanksgiving Day is for Pilgrim Fathers.”

The trade newspapers – Florists’ Review, American Florist, Horticulture and Florists’ Exchange – all noted the day’s first year of observance in 1908. The Florists’ Review carried a letter: “It’s a sentiment that appeals to every man and boy, and people bought flowers that never bought before. … We hope to make it a holiday for the United States. Crowd it and push it … and [it] comes when flowers are cheap and plenty.”

In April 1910, the Florists’ Review reminded: “Well, what have you started to help along Mothers’ day? Seen the mayor abouSV300355 (2)t issuing a proclamation? Called the ministers’ attention? Spoken to the local newspapers?”

The trade saw the story of Anna Jarvis’s love for her self-sacrificing mother as “more publicity for Mother’s Day than money can buy.” Discussing advertising strategies for Mother’s Day in 1916, the American Florist advised: “The commercial aspect is at all times to be kept concealed.”

By 1920, Jarvis turned against her former allies, now denouncing the “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest, truest Movements and celebrations known”.

In 1922, the Florists’ Review pronounced Jarvis’s campaign against the trade foiled for another year: “Miss Jarvis was completely squelched!” Her “vaporings” against commercialization had actually increased publicity for Mother’s Day. Even better, controversy was free.

Already in 1913 the Florists’ Review had blustered: “Mothers’ day is ours; we made it; we made it practically unaided and alone.” As Schmidt concluded:

Anna Jarvis devoted a great part of her life to building up what she called the “Mother’s Day Movement,” but she wound up spending an equal share of it bewailing “the mire of commercialism” into which her sentimental and religious occasion progressively sank.

Mind you, I admit that, when separated by distance from a meal with my mother, I have been involved in sending flowers.

SV300356 (2)Nonetheless, who will join me in the Meals Matter Movement – launching something for all seasons in all hemispheres? Let’s celebrate Private Meals Day.

War and peace, and Anzac theatricals

WE DID A READING recently of a play I was always told was mere escapism. The drama SV300309 (2)turned out to be slightly more significant than that, being set in an old mansion whose staff gently meet clients’ escapist fantasies, such as a trade union leader working, and never finishing, his revolutionary tract. A ballerina dances late in the proceedings.

The play won the first Adelaide Festival of Arts play-writing competition in 1960. I was young, but enjoyed that short opening season, which was probably its last, until we gave Goodbye to Number Six its recent airing. Our interest came from its author being my grandfather, Alex Symons.SV300315 (3)

Detracting from family pride, however, the play had only won and been performed because the conservative board running that first festival had over-ruled the experts’ recommendation, which eventually proved to be one of Australia’s most enduring plays, Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year.

SV300311 (2)I attended the world premiere of that, too, put on by many of the same Adelaide theatricals some months later. We bumped into my grandparents during interval, and I still recall my grandfather’s silence, which took me many years to really understand.

The One Day of the Year is a clash between father and son over Anzac Day celebrations. By the 1950s, the national holiday (25 April) had come to represent drunken diggers (by then, veterans of at least three wars). Anzac day officially commemorated the failed and deadly campaign by Australian and New Zealand troops sitting helplessly from 25 April 1915 to 9 January 1916 on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey.

What were they doing there? A good question.

Encouraged especially by Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and John Howard, Anzac Day has in recent years become a massive, national festival. Thousands clamour for the limited tickets to the dawn service at Gallipoli itself. On the eve of this year’s centenary of the landing, our unpopular Prime Minister Tony Abbott urged everyone to get to a dawn service to show “our defiance of those who would do us harm [read “terrorists”] and we’re supporting our country’s [newly-invented “Judeo-Christian”] values and our armed forces [including those I am now sending back to Iraq]”.SV300319 (2)

Some veterans would never go near such a bun fight, including my grandfather, who was awarded a Military Cross and endured a year’s surgery that still left metal in him. The death and destruction were sufficiently painful that he left London in 1922 to live in South Australia, never to return.

No-one recalls Alex Symons ever speaking about his experiences of the so-called Great War, except for once to his daughter, Janet. Just back from an Anzac Day service during that next conflagration, she asked why he never attended. He looked pained and answered, according to my aunt’s memoir:

“It was all about the killed and the killing.” When he had to lead his men “over the top” from the trenches in the Somme the majority were killed. He and one other were wounded and lying in the mud for 48 hours before being rescued. … he said he had to live with that, knowing how many men were killed and that the action had not been of any value.

In South Australia, he became the much-loved General Manager of the SA Housing Trust, and retreated into writing “escapist” plays and a musical, several performed.

Alex’s son, my father, went off to the Second World War and only ever attended Anzac commemorations as a radio commentator. But he was beaten in any contempt for arms by my mother, whose two brothers had been psychically damaged, one of them a young fighter pilot who became a problem alcoholic, and who always went to Anzac Day reunions. In fact, when unable to work and living with us, he went to daily reunions. He was a lovely guy, his life ruined and shortened.

I could hear my mother’s anguish when I read the other day how all “9 acres of guns” had to be made non-operational, with the firing pins removed, at the annual convention of the right-wing front-group, the U.S. National Rifle Association. That’s the NRA that wants loaded guns in schools to protect from guns – a policy of “mutually assured destruction” (or MAD).

A libertarian Senator believes Australia is a “nation of victims”, unable to protect themselves with weapons. He spoke in response to the Martin Place siege, in which two hostages were killed, one by police fire. Leyonhjelm’s case seemed even sillier when, a few days later, in a Walmart in Idaho, a two-year-old killed his mother with her gun that he found in front of him in her shopping cart. From the killing rates, the highly armed U.S. is by far the greater “nation of victims”.

Whatever way it came down to me, I was left loathing militarism, an opponent of the Vietnam War, another distant venture to which a conservative Australian government sent young citizens. When I say “citizens”, 20-year-olds were conscripted but we had to wait another year to vote. It’s the half-century anniversary of that, too, by the way.

This present Anzac carry-on is not all chauvinist belligerence and calls for more “defence” spending. I have tried to avoid media coverage, but it is wall-to-wall, and I have found plenty of genuine sorrow for the killed, maimed, and forgotten. The notable absence, however, is discussion about how to end the barbarity. Where’s the pacifism?

From my reading, many libertarians genuinely oppose war. The “free” (ha-ha) market is the only legitimate power, they believe, making the military as invalid as any other non-market force. They manage to ignore, however, enormous “market” pressures from the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned against in 1961.

They also detest world government, which I am not convinced might not be an improvement on self-appointed sheriffs in continuous action (Groundhog Day meets High Noon).

Not very gastronomic, I hear you say. Where are the meals? Yes, that’s the point.

You may call it escapism, but I retreat from the horrors of war and unlimited growth (more on another occasion) to meals. Meals matter, SV300305 (2)and importantly as a rejection of armaments.

Meals are the antithesis of war. Enemies make peace at the table. The genuinely free market is not going to spontaneously combust. The land flowing with milk and honey is no scorched earth.

I contemplated such matters when planning my small birthday dinner on what also happens to be Anzac Day. It’s also the 50th anniversary of conscription for Australian males turning 20, as mentioned earlier.

It should be an anti-armaments dinner, I decided. But meals are intrinsically anti-armaments, swords left at the door.

So, I’ve just collected some anti-war buttons to be worn by diners who want.