Every fourth Sunday of Lent and exactly three weeks before Easter, the holiday of Mothering Sunday, now more popularly known as Mother’s Day, occurs. Historically, the event was a religious one and had little to do with mums. Around the 16th century, the holiday saw servants given the day off so that they could return to their families and to their ‘mother’ church. The term ‘mother’ was used to describe the hierarchical position of a church within a diocese, the first church in the parish, or another relevant important element, such as its size of where a person was baptised. The idea of ‘mother’ in regard to the church might also be related to the ultimate mother: the Virgin Mary, also known as Mother Mary, or the mother of the church. This reflection of the mother as an important figure might stem from the Greek and Roman celebrations of the mother goddess.
During this time in history, it was important for people to return to their mother church at least once per year. Servants rejoined their families for a day of worship, and family time. On the way to services, children would often pick flowers to put in the church, but might also give a bouquet to their mother as well. When people attended services on Mothering Sunday, they were said to be going ‘a-mothering.’ After services, families would return home to enjoy a meal together. Despite the fact this special day fell during Lent, fasting rules were relaxed a bit (the holiday was sometimes known as Refreshment Sunday). Families sometimes enjoyed simnel cake on Mothering Sunday (also sometimes called Simnel Sunday).
Sometimes, young girls who were away in service would make a simnel cake to take home to their mothers. The cake, which is a fruit one topped with marzipan reflects the religious observances, as it traditionally had eleven balls of marzipan on top of the cake. These balls represented Jesus’ disciples, except Judas.
In East Lothian, Haddington was a centre of power as the fourth largest city in Scotland during the Middle Ages. In Haddington, St. Mary’s Church, also known as the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, may have been considered the mother church as it was an integral part of parish life, and because of its size and importance within the greater religious community. The reference to the Virgin Mary in the church’s title might also have had relevance to its importance as a mother church.
In the 1920s, Mothering Sunday lapsed in popularity. During this time, English vicar’s daughter Constance Penswick Smith lamented at the loss of the once popular holiday in modern society, and worked to rekindle interest. She had been inspired by American Anna Jarvis, who in 1908 after the death of her mother, wanted to create a formal celebration of mothers everywhere. In 1914, American President Woodrow Wilson officially signed Mother’s Day into existence. Anna Jarvis planned to bring the festival of Mother’s Day to Britain. However, Penswick Smith realised that despite their similar names, Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day were completely different. Seeing that Mother’s Day lacked the religious overtones of Mothering Sunday, Penswick Smith wrote a book entitled, ‘The Revival of Mothering Sunday,’ in which she outlined the more religious aspects of Mothering Sunday.
British merchants saw the opportunities with Mother’s Day (giving gifts, cards, and the like) and promoted the holiday into what we might recognise more readily today. Jarvis was angry at the commercialisation of the holiday she had put so much effort into creating so much so, that she herself started boycotting and protesting Mother’s Day. In once such incident, she was even arrested!
By the 1950s, Mother’s Day was celebrated throughout the UK as it is today. Many people don’t realise that indeed, there are two separate celebrations, but they usually lumped all into the fourth week of Lent celebration. In America, Mother’s Day isn’t celebrated until the second Sunday in May.