Mother’s Day in France: Origins and Traditions


Traditionally, Mother’s Day is held annually on the second Sunday of May in the US and in Australia. But French people are used to paying tribute to their mothers on the last Sunday of May and in the United Kingdom, Mother’s Day takes place far earlier, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, which is usually in March. How can we explain all these differences? Every country has its own Mother’s Day history …

Mother’s Day in English-speaking countries

Mothers' Day at Bauget in Maisons-Laffitte © French Moments

Mothers’ Day at a French pâtisserie © French Moments

Mother’s Day in Australia

In Australia, the tradition was started in 1924 by Janet Hayden, a lady from Leichhardt, Sydney. She wanted to pay tribute to the destitute mothers from the Newington State Home, in Sydney’s western suburbs. Mrs Hayden offered simple gifts to the women living there, such as cakes, perfume and hairpins. This nice lady wanted to spread the celebration across the whole country. She just did not know how to do it. She decided to try appealing to the public through Sydney newspapers, who published the idea. Soon, Mother’s Day became a national celebration in Australia, thanks to Mrs Hayden.

Mother’s Day in the United States

In the United States, two women are said to have established the tradition of Mother’s Day. The first one was named Julia Ward Howe. In 1870, she campaigned for a peace-oriented Mother’s Day celebration. It lasted for a few years before the rising tradition suddenly stopped. The second lady was Anna Jarvis. She first organised a private Mother’s Day celebration. Her aim was to pay tribute to her own mother, who had just passed away. Then, she contacted the churches from her area, which passed on her idea. The celebration spread to the East Coast, before being adopted by the whole country. The American President Woodrow Wilson even designated Mother’s Day as an actual national holiday in 1914.

Mother’s Day in the UK

The United Kingdom might have been the first country to start the tradition of Mother’s Day. According to most historians, the origins of the celebration can be found in the mid-16th century. Back then, a Christian celebration was held on the fourth Sunday of Lent (three Sundays prior to Easter) to honour women and their children. It was called Mothering Sunday. However, British people started to abandon the custom in the early 19th century. In the 1910s, a young English lady called Constance Smith tried to bring this Anglican tradition back. British retailers quickly understood that they could take advantage of such a tradition. Consequently, the modern Mother’s Day was born in the UK, in a more secular and commercial way than the original Mothering Sunday.

Mother’s Day in France

The starting point of Mother’s Day in France is quite different to that of the English-speaking countries. The origins of the celebration in France date from the Napoleon era. In 1806, the French emperor decided to establish a special day dedicated to the mothers of large families. This celebration was revived after World War I. An official Mother’s Day was organised by the city of Lyon. The aim was then to honour the widows who lost their husbands during the war. Mother’s Day was officially recognised by the French government in 1929. In 1941, the French Vichy government chose the last Sunday of May as the official Mother’s Day date. Nine years later, a law was passed saying that “Every year, the French Republic pays an official tribute to Mothers during a special day dedicated to the celebration of Mother’s Day”.

The Family Medal

In every French municipality, the mayor can honour mothers of large families by giving them a special medal called “Médaille de la Famille” (Family Medal). The tradition is generally held annually on Mother’s Day. Mothers can receive a gold medal if they have more than eight children, a silver medal if they have six or seven children, and a bronze medal if they have four or five children.

Presents for Maman!

On Mother’s Day, French people offer presents to their mums. The most common gifts are flowers, perfume and jewelry. French people usually spend around forty euros for a gift to their mothers for that special day. Young children are also used to preparing secret gifts at school for mum!

A public holiday?

Mother’s Day is not a public holiday in France. Nevertheless, it is an important date for French people. It leaves its mark on the month of May, just like the Christian celebrations of Ascension and Pentecost.

As for fathers, they also have their Father’s Day: it is held annually in France on the third Sunday of June.


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