By starting with commercialization and going to ritual, Mother’s Day reverses pattern of most American holidays

Mother’s Day dominates the news media today. Every newspaper has a Mother’s Day story on the front cover and every television and radio news show is running a Mother’s Day feature. The New York Times Book Review starts reviews of two books about mothers on its front cover. The Wall Street Journal weekend edition touts men as the new mothers because they are doing more of the household chores and child-rearing nowadays; of course the Journal plays the old “better but not good” game, as surveys reveal that men are doing more but not coming near a 50-50 split with their working wives.

My epiphany about Mother’s Day came reading the colored funny pages in the Sunday local newspaper, which for me is The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. There are 24 comics in all, but two are puzzles for kids and two are narrative series, leaving 20 comics that have a relative freedom of choice in topic.

Of these 20, 10 had a Mother’s Day joke. That’s 50 % of all the possible comic strips, which suggests how engrained Mother’s Day is in the American consciousness.  Of course, it helps that the holiday takes place on one day that is always the day the Sunday comics appear.

But here’s what caught my eye: 5 of the comics, or 25% of all the comic strips of the day had a joke about the same topic: bringing mother breakfast in bed. The five strips include For Better or Worse, FoxTrot, Mother Goose & Grimm, The Born Loser and Dennis the Menace. The common theme to the joke is the ineptness of the rest of the family to cook the morning meal, except for FoxTrot in which the joke is the competition between two of the children. Family or fatherly ineptness also ruled Blondie, in which the family has to ask Blondie what to do to celebrate (answer: restaurant) and Drabble in which the dad gives a card he hasn’t even read.

Ineptness of father is a staple of American comedy since 50’s situation comedies. Moreover, mother as the glue of the family is a central part of American mythology since Victorian times and part of the glorification of the stay-at-home mom, who, BTW, is nowadays primarily wealthy or near-wealthy.

But let’s look beyond the structure of the jokes to their common subject:  bringing mother breakfast in bed. Not a purchase, but a ritualized personal act of devotion and caring.

Remember that Mother’s Day started as a retailer’s holiday, a holiday fabricated by marketing departments to increase sales of flowers, stationery, perfume and other products and services.

But when people think of what to do for their mother on Mother’s Day, they think most often of breakfast in bed, at least in the mythology of comics.  And Yahoo! seems to agree: In the survey today on its home page, making breakfast in bed comes in third place out of the three choices to the question, “What is the best Mother’s Day gift?” But the other two choices are “Homemade gift from child” and “Saying I love you.” In other words, taking mom out for a great meal, buying flowers or getting her another bauble or bottle of scented liquid doesn’t even enter into the equation. (And note that a homemade gift only applies when children are 12 or under.)

Thus a holiday whose primary ideal means of celebration started as shopping has developed into one whose primary ideal means of celebration is ritual, in this case the ritual of breakfast in bed.

This shift goes against the trend in the celebration of traditional holidays in the United States. Most holidays started in old world or long-ago rituals and then declined into debauched celebrations of consumption in which the buying of material goods and services serves as the primary means of expression.  We know about Christmas, so consider All Saints’ Day, which used to be a day of church going and charitable offerings, but today is celebrated on its eve by getting dressed up in scary or funny costumes and going door to door asking for candy and other treats. As a quick look at the mass media each December proves with crushing certainty, the idea that these holidays are about buying dominates both the celebration and the buzz about the celebration by mass culture.

The real world, however, differs slightly from the mythic world of popular culture inhabited by Yahoo! surveys and comic strip families. In that real world, candy, cards, chocolate, flowers, spa treatments and fancy restaurants still predominate.  In fact, those adults who celebrate Mother’s Day intend to spend an average of $152.52 this year. But it is promising to note that on the barren landscape of a commercialized holiday, some flowers of authentic ritual have grown.

Let’s not get too joyful over the development of breakfast in bed as a mainstay of Mother’s Day, though. In a way, bringing her breakfast in bed symbolizes the fact that the burden of food purchase and preparation still falls on mom’s back. If it didn’t, then the one day’s break from making breakfast wouldn’t be seen as such a pleasant and loving gift. One of the key images of oppressed womanhood in American mass culture has always been “being chained to the stove.” The connection between “chained to the stove” and “breakfast in bed” is direct and obvious: breakfast in bed serves as symbolic reminder of mom’s role and her oppression in many traditional (and some contemporary) households.

Virtually all religious ritual entails a symbolic subservience to the religious institution or its preferred deity. Think of taking a sacrament, saying a prayer over wine or bread, receiving a crown from the Pope, facing East for prayer. It only makes sense then that the rituals of our secular religion would also remind us of the role we have to play in that religion.

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