Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fête des Mères

It's Mother's Day today in France. My kids feted me two weeks ago according to the American tradition and it got to me to wondering why the two countries celebrate on different days. Otherwise, the commercial trappings seem incredibly similar. Flowers! Perfume! Chocolate! Clothes! You get the picture.

I did a bit of Internet snooping about the origins of la Fête des Mères and got a bunch of answers, none completely satisfactory. According to one source, Napoleon, famously devoted to his own mother, set the wheels in motion. Another story has it that after World War I, the French minister of the interior was inspired by the American doughboys to create an official mother's day in France to be celebrated in December. At a time when France had suffered devastating losses among its young men, Mother's Day had the not so subtle message of urging women to go forth and procreate. Mothers with four or five children received a bronze medal, six or seven got you a silver; those with eight or more scored gold.

In the 1940s, the date shifted to May under a proclamation by Marshal Pétain, the head of the Vichy government during World War II. The Vichy propaganda machine aggressively promoted the image of women as nurturers, subordinating themselves to the greater good of the family and nation. A twenty-something French woman I know told me that when she was little, she asked her mother about the appropriateness of celebrating the day when it was created as part of Vichy's collaboration with the Nazis. She said her mother told her, "I don't care. We're celebrating anyway."

So whatever the origins, bonne fête to all the mothers out there. May your gifts be given with love and no political agendas.

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