The woman who invented Mother’s Day in the early 1900s called the Mother’s Day card “a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write.”
Anna Jarvis might just as well have been talking about the Valentine’s Day card or the Christmas card, the Birthday card or the Bar Mitzvah card.
If your idea of thoughtfulness on any given holiday is signing your name next to a $3 poem that someone else wrote (and sold a million copies of) — well, let’s just hope you weren’t too lazy to mail it.
Nearly 100 years after Jarvis lost her fight against the commercialization of Mother’s Day, handing out a Hallmark card is not only perfectly acceptable, it is the gesture for all occasions.
And even though she spent her last penny fighting it, Jarvis could never have imagined Mother’s Day in the 21st Century achieving such a grotesque level of commercialization.
In the UK, where the greeting card was born, the greeting card industry is worth more than C$1.8-billion a year, according to market research group Mintel.
Mother’s Day is one of the biggest events in the industry’s calendar and Britons sent about 23 million cards to their mothers in 2005.
In Canada and United States, Mother’s Day is considered by industry to be the third most profitable celebration of the year behind Christmas and Valentine’s Day and before Easter and Father’s Day.
IBSWorld, a major independent publisher of business intelligence research in the US, predicted “an economic bonanza for retailers” this May 13, bringing attention on behalf of its clients to the 82.5 million mothers out there anticipating nothing more than the traditional greeting card, box of chocolates or bunch of artificially-coloured carnations for Mother’s Day.
Of course, a few lucky moms did get jewelry or spa packages.
IBSWorld predicted Americans would spend $11.2 billion on Mother’s Day gifts this year.
But back to the greeting card … we don’t need to ban the card, but are we really too busy, too thoughtless and too unimaginative to make our own?
In Canada, more than 600 million greetings cards are exchanged every year, according to Toronto-based Carlton Cards, which has 250 retails stores across the country and is the major retailer of cards in most Canadian pharmacies and supermarkets.
According to the Greeting Card Association, which represents thousands of greeting card distributors, including Hallmark, and represents about 95 per cent of industry sales, US shoppers buy approximately seven billion greeting cards each year, generating nearly $7.5 billion in retail sales.
The giving of the card is one of the rare customs that enjoys nearly universal appeal. There are cards for virtually any occasion or relationship and they are widely available in all countries.
In the US, more than 90 per cent of all US households buy greeting cards, with the average household purchasing 30 individual cards in a year and the average person receiving more than 20 cards per year.
What all these statistics add up to is a culture that buys a heck of a lot of greeting cards and which subscribes religiously to the calendar of occasions designed for us by the greeting card industry, factors that have over time created something worth fighting to protect among the greeting card industry.
The Greeting Card Industry, as it was called in 1941, first organized to fight a War department order to reduce paper use by 25 per cent.
It won the battle against eliminating the paper used for greeting cards during the Second World War by launching “Defence Stamp Christmas Cards” and V-Mail greeting cards to help promote defence stamps and war bonds.
Anna Jarvis didn’t like cards because they were too easy. She would be proud to know that some modern day Mother’s Day activists are trying to distance the tradition of mother-honouring from the commercialism.
“We have a particular problem in the UK drawing a line around those parts of our lives that we want to keep sacrosanct from the market,” Professor Ralph Fevre told the BBC on March 16.
“When we find some aspect of our lives that we want to value, or honour as the Americans say, we always end up involving the market in some way.”
He suggests moving the celebration of Mother’s Day from a Sunday to a weekday.
“We need to try a bit harder to put work in its place. Having Mothers Day on a Sunday lets us off the hook.
“To have it on a weekday would show that we can resist that pull that takes us into work and which makes us value everything in economic terms.”
Carrie Longton, one of the founders of Mumsnet, is trying to switch the focus of Mother’s Day to mothers helping other mothers.
She held a bake sale on Mother’s Day to raise money for HIV mothers in Africa.
“It costs just ($10.50) to buy the medicine to make sure they don’t pass HIV onto their children.”
Anna Jarvis of West Virginia spent years of her life trying to build a celebration of mothers in honour of her own hard-working and devoted mother of 11 children.
And she succeeded.
By 1909, 45 states, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Canada and Mexico observed the day with a church service and the wearing of white and red carnations.
But almost as soon as US President Woodrow Wilson officially dedicated a day to mothers in 1914, it began to deteriorate and Jarvis was forced to start her fight to undo the corporate takeover of Mother’s Day, a losing battle that rendered her penniless but which continues to line the pockets of many.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.