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At least two sources can be accepted for the establishment of dedicating a special day to mothers: the most primitive, as usual, goes back to ancient Greece with Rhea, or Cybele in Rome, goddess of nature and fertility who was worshipped as the Great Mother of the Gods. The ceremonies of worship were held in the middle of spring, when May flowers were in full bloom. Native American cultures also engaged in various rituals dedicated to the mother in mid-spring, linked with the advent of life.
A more modern origin comes from the United States, when Ann Jarvis founded Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in five cities to improve sanitary and health conditions. These clubs also treated wounds, fed, and clothed both Union and Confederate soldiers with neutrality.
After the death of her mother in 1905, Anna Jarvis resolved to honor her mother and in 1907, she began an aggressive campaign to establish a National Mother’s Day in the US. On the second anniversary of her mother’s death, she led a small tribute to her mother at Andrews Methodist Church where she passed out 500 white carnations, one for each mother in the congregation. A white carnation was to be worn to honor deceased mothers, and a red one to honor a living mother.
Anna succeeded in making this day nationally recognized in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson made the official announcement proclaiming Mother’s Day as a national holiday that was to be held each year on the second Sunday of May. Other countries, including Cuba, have adopted this or another date with the same purpose—to honor mothers. Today, Mother’s Day is officially celebrated in well over 140 countries around the world.
The first town in Cuba that celebrated Mother’s Day was Santiago de las Vegas, located approx 30 km southwest of Central Havana. In 1920, a group of young intellectuals who met every night at the town’s Instruction and Recreation Center welcomed warmly the idea suggested by their colleague Francisco Montoto—teacher, journalist, violinist and writer—to commemorate the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, which fell that year on Sunday 10.
Montoto hosted a grand celebration to honor mothers in the People’s Theatre of the aforementioned Center with the performances of several artists. As was the custom then in the States, those who wore a red carnation were accompanied by their mothers and those whose mothers had passed away, indicated so with a white carnation on the lapel of their suit or the buttonhole of their guayaberas, or pinned on their dresses. This practice continued until the late 1950’s, unfortunately falling into disuse in the early 1960’s.
This tribute was so successful that it made the headlines of the national daily newspaper El Mundo, thanks to the journalist Victor A. Muñoz Riera, who at the time was also a city councilor. After Muñoz Riera’s personal campaign in the press, the Municipal Council of Havana agreed to celebrate—at a municipal level—Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May of each year starting in 1921. As with almost all commemorations, the holiday became commercialized, so much so that since the start of May, people awaited for special offers and products on sale.
Masonic lodges did much to make this day a family occasion centered around the mother. Some Masons, very influential in the politics of the time, had proposed that the municipal councils erect a monument to mothers in each of the municipalities. The proposal took hold in some places, such as Marianao, where the monument and the square which was built for that particular end are still standing.
In the 1960’s, Cubans were celebrating Mother’s Day with gifts and greetings cards, with the addition of a new ingredient—a cake. Cakes and greeting cards were a must and to let the day go by without these articles was simply inexcusable. Even in times of increased hardship for the national economy during the Special Period, when even a bar of soap was a luxury and the nation had blackouts for most of the day, neither of these things stopped Cuban daughters and sons to give their mothers greeting cards and cakes, although of varying quality. At a time of great stress foodwise, the government would take some of the flour from the country’s emergency food reserve to make these cakes at modest prices. This says something of the importance given to cakes on this special day.
Mother’s Day in Cuba has become a family commemoration to honor women who have done their utmost in the care, education and protection of all children in general, hence the tribute is extended to aunts, cousins, teachers, friends, neighbors… Those who are far, do whatever it takes to accompany them on that day along with the rest of the family. And those whose mothers have passed away make a visit to the cemetery to place fresh flowers on their graves. However, nothing is more touching than a child who gives his mother the card with the paper flower they have made with their own hands.