Book Review: Mother’s Day By Mary Kay Phelan & Aliki

In honor of tomorrow’s holiday of celebrating our dear mothers, I was positively delighted to score this sweet, non-fiction vintage book called most simply, Mother’s Day. Quite a bit different than the typical book I like to write about here, I still felt this one was lovely enough to show it off a bit. I fear that it is most likely difficult to find unless you have a really good library that still stocks some old titles like this, so I’ll share and show a bit more than I often do. Not to mention this is a long book, being more of a historical, research-driven book. This is a book that was written while the author searched for the answers to a child’s question about the holiday’s origin. So, if you’ve ever wondered where Mother’s Day originated, or like me, always assumed it was a Hallmark-created holiday, then take a look at this vintage book that details where the idea came from and how it spread around the world. This is Mother’s Day by Mary Kay Phelan, illustrated by Aliki, 1965.

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For starters, I didn’t realize, or had never thought to wonder, that Mother’s Day is celebrated all around the world. Some at different times, but quite a few on the same Sunday as the United States. Ms. Phelan begins by telling how the holiday has its roots from thousands of years ago when the people of Phrygia would hold a joyous festival to celebrate the most important goddess, Cybele, who was considered the mother of all the gods.

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When Christianity came to Rome, it changed the celebration to honor your “Mother Church.” Ms. Phelan continues her details down through the ages, with the different alterations and traditions that several time periods followed until 1872 when the first suggestion for Mother’s Day was made in the United States.

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A woman named Anna Jarvis was the founder of Mother’s Day, wanting to honor the wish of her Mother who had disliked the hatred still lingering within families from the Civil War. Anna’s mother had hoped that if there was a holiday honoring mothers, everyone would forget about fighting and be brought back together. It took many years of requesting, writing letters, and persistence before the first Mother’s Day service was held on May 12, 1907, and Anna had fulfilled her mother’s wish.

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That is just a brief summary of part of the information Ms. Phelan shares in the book. There are more details regarding things like the tradition of using white carnations, the first Mother’s Day postage stamp, and all the many fun, sweet and silly traditions of children around the world celebrating their moms.

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The most hilarious and perhaps somewhat disturbing tradition seems to be in Yugoslavia, where children awake early and tie their mother to her bed until she gives them treats she has hidden underneath her pillow. Kids, don’t try this at home please.

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I was quite delighted by this book, even as I am often put off by the length of factual books like this. Mary Kay Phelan did a nice job writing simply, including important facts as well as just plain fun ones, and making it not feel like I was reading a textbook. Although I cannot find much information on her, the author blurb in the back of the book describes research as being an avocation and a vocation for her. She is best known for her book, The Story of the Great Chicago Fire, 1871, which was written in 1971 and illustrated by William Plummer. There are many more historical titles by her as well.

The illustrator, Aliki, is a fantastic name in children’s book illustration. Always intrigued by a single name illustrator, I’ve been collecting her books each time I encounter one. I love her characters and the decorative details and fun items that appear in her illustrations. In case you are wondering, she does have a last name, Aliki Brandenburg to be official, and has written and illustrated many books. I love that she worked in the display department for New York’s J.C. Penney during the 1950s. What a fun job as an illustrator, or at least I imagine so. Her blurb in the back of the book mentions that she had extensive European travels including a motor and painting tour through Switzerland, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece. Perhaps that is where that fun, yet odd, Mother’s Day tradition information came about Yugoslavia!

I hope tomorrow is a lovely day for you, no matter if or how you celebrate it. I will rest assured tonight, thankful that our family traditions are not like Mother’s Day in Yugoslavia. At least, not yet!

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