20th March 2017
Mothering Sunday – a history
Our British Mothering Sunday, like Easter, is a moveable feast that falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent. Hence in 2017 Mothering Sunday is on the 26th of March.
It wasn’t, as you could imagine, invented by Hallmark cards. The origins of Mothering Sunday lie in centuries old historical and Christian traditions. But more of that later.
These days this day of celebrating our mothers is often referred to as Mother’s Day. The problem with that being that it confuses old British Mothering Sunday with the more modern American ‘Mother’s Day’. That’s a different thing altogether and takes place on the second Sunday in May.
The fact that there’s a Mother’s Day across the pond at all is down to a campaign carried out by Anna Jarvis (1864-1948) whose own mother had died on May 9th.
Her story though influences the British Mothering Sunday as this article from the Telegraph explains.
By 1913 Mothering Sunday was something of a dying celebration in Britain. But a certain Constance Smith (1878-1938) read a newspaper report of Anna Jarvis’ campaign in America. And that prompted her to start a revival of the British celebration.
In 1920, Under the pen-name C.Penswick Smith, she published a booklet entitled ‘The Revival of Mothering Sunday’. So, if you’re a mother with children that acknowledge the occasion, it’s Constance you have to thank.
But there was a key difference.
A High Anglican, Constance Smith believed that the Church of England liturgy for the 4th Sunday of Lent expressed a ‘day in praise of mothers’. As it happens this is not quite so.
In fact, the Collect on that Sunday asks God that ‘we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved’. That doesn’t sound all that maternal does it? Indeed, the only specific maternal reference is in the Lesson on this day: ‘Jerusalem which is above is free; which is the mother of us all.’
Let them eat cake
Mothering Sunday was also known as Refreshment Sunday because Lent’s fasting rules were relaxed on that day.
The food most associated with Mothering Sunday, and not Easter as you might think, is Simnel Cake*. And Constance Smith had a finger in this slice of tradition too in reconnecting simnel cakes with honouring mothers.
A further religious strand to the tale lies in the phrase ‘daughter church’ – otherwise known as your nearest Parish Church. Centuries ago people felt the importance of returning to their ‘mother church’ – the church in the village/town they were born in. So, on a yearly basis, in the middle of Lent people visited their mother church – the main church or cathedral of the area.
A day off from domestic drudgery
Now comes another thread: that of social history. Back in the day it was common for children as young as 10 to leave home to work in domestic service. There was no lingering in bed playing video games in those times.
It was inevitable then this return to the ‘mother church’ became a time for family reunions. So, as this BBC article explains, children working in domestic service were given the day off to visit their mothers and their families.
It’s thought that, as these children walked along the country lanes to visit their families and their ‘mother’ church, they’d collect wild flowers and violets to give as a gift. An idea for which Interflora must be eternally grateful I’m sure!
It’s a sad irony that neither Constance Smith nor Anna Jarvis became mothers themselves. Anna Jarvis didn’t like the growing commercialization of the day and disapproved of pre-printed cards saying: ‘A printed card means nothing, except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.’
*Simnel Cake: A Simnel cake is a fruit cake with two layers of almond paste, one on top and one in the middle.
The cake has 11 balls of marzipan icing on top representing the 11 disciples. (Judas is not included.) It was a tradition too to include sugar violets.
As to why it’s called Simnel cake: The name Simnel may be a derivation of the Latin word simila – a fine wheat flour used for cake baking.
But there’s a a more entertaining alternative explanation. Legend has it that a man named Simon and his wife Nell argued over whether to bake or boil the Mothering Sunday cake. In the end, they did both so the cake became named after both of them. SIM-NELL.