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  • Writer's pictureRevShirleyMurphy

Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day

Each year on the fourth Sunday of Lent, countries around the world celebrate Mothering Sunday. This typically involves lavishing Mums with gifts and attention and celebrating the women who have nurtured us throughout our lives. But with the day becoming increasingly commercialised, how many people are aware of its very different origins?

In the 16th century, Mothering Sunday was less about mothers and more about church. Back then, people would make a journey to their ‘mother’ church once a year. This might have been their home church, their nearest cathedral or a major parish church in a bigger town. The service which took place at the ‘mother’ church symbolised the coming together of families. This would have represented a significant journey for many.

Another tradition was to allow those working in the fields on wealthy farms and estates in England to have the day off on the fourth Sunday of Lent to visit their mothers and possibly go to church too. This was a variation on the theme of visiting the 'mother' church and was a move towards a more family focussed occasion. Before the days of cars and roads, family get-togethers were far rarer, (and facetime was still a long way off). In some ways this tradition is still alive today as grown up children often visit their parents on mothering Sunday.

Simnel cake has a strong affiliation to Mothering Sunday as it is usually associated with spring and Easter. It resembles a Christmas fruit cake but should be slightly lighter in texture. The other difference is the two layers of marzipan. Simnel cake should have a layer of marzipan running through the middle like a victoria sponge and then another layer of marzipan on the top. Traditionally, you should also roll some marzipan into eleven eggs and place these on the top. The eggs are supposed to symbolise the disciples who followed Jesus – note that Judas is excluded.

The question is, do you boil or bake your simnel cake? Some say it’s necessary to do both because of an argument from folktale where two people could not agree on the correct way to cook the cake.

In America ‘Mother’s Day’ , which is what we tend to call it here also in the UK, is held on the second Sunday of May, as proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. It is marked on that day because it was the result of a campaign by Anna Jarvis, whose own mother had died on May 9, who, long before then had expressed a desire for such a holiday to be established. Anna had campaigned to establish Mother’s Day first as a U.S. national holiday and then later as an international holiday (Mother’s Day is currently celebrated in over 40 countries worldwide!). The holiday was declared officially by the state of West Virginia in 1910, and the rest of the states followed very quickly. There was no connection whatsoever to ‘Mothering Sunday’. Traditions on Mother’s Day had typically included, attending church, family dinners and the deliverance of carnations.

Carnations have come to represent Mother’s Day since the founder, Anna Jarvis delivered 500 of them at the first celebration in 1908. Many religious services held later adopted the custom of giving away carnations. This also started the custom of wearing a carnation on Mother’s Day. Anna Jarvis chose the carnation because it was her late mother’s favourite flower. Due to the shortage of white carnations, and also because of the efforts to expand the sales of more types of flowers in Mother’s Day, florists invented the idea of wearing a pink carnation if your mother was living, or a white one if she was dead. This was incessantly promoted until it made its way into the popular observations at churches.

The commercialisation of the American holiday began very quickly, and only a few years after the first official Mother’s Day (nine to be exact!). In fact, it had become so prevalent that Anna Jarvis herself became a major opponent of what the holiday had become, spending the rest of her life fighting what she saw as an ‘abuse of the celebration’. She belittled the practice of purchasing greeting cards, which she saw as a sign of being too lazy to write a personal letter. It was even recorded that she “…wished she would have never started the day because it became so out of control …” She sadly died later that year…

As the title quite rightly puts it, an English woman named Constance Smith was inspired by Anna Jarvis’ actions and became responsible for the revival of Mothering Sunday in the UK.

Constance Smith linked this concept to Mothering Sunday and had published a booklet titled, The Revival of Mothering Sunday, in 1920. Alongside a colleague from a society she was included in, Constance established a movement to promote Mothering Sunday, collecting and publishing information about the day and its traditional observance throughout the UK. This included researching into local traditions, such as the making of Simnel cake, a light fruit cake which is typically eaten during the Easter period, and wafer cakes, and presenting these delectables to Mother. The movement established Mothering Sunday as a widely observed day throughout Britain, and by the time of Constance’s death, the day was said to be observed in ‘every parish in Britain’, and every country in the British Empire!

This Sunday, churches around the country will be sharing their own traditions, celebrating and giving thanks to the huge impact mothers have on each of our lives. The main service on Mothering Sunday in churches across the country is central to the life of the church.

The church recognises that the day may be difficult for some people and so it is commonplace for services to include prayers for those who don’t find the day particularly easy.

Families across the country will be preparing little presents and cards and, in some churches, flowers are blessed and handed out during the main service.

Families come together to have lunch, or children make breakfast in bed for their mothers, leaving all the mess to be cleared up later! It’s all about showing appreciation and many make a huge effort to make their mother feel special.


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