Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day? Which is it?

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.

Four generations of mothers and daughters.

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).

Simnel Cake, from BBC Food Online.

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.

St. Mary’s Church, Haddington

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.

The queen of all mothers, the Queen Mum at the opening of The Brunton Hall, Musselburgh.

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.


Memorial to Robert Burn’s mother, Agnes Broun, who lived in Bolton, East Lothian, in her later years

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The Woman’s Platform

The panel speaking at forum

Bernie Rowan-Ross representing Haddington Spinners & Weavers

Susan Kinnaird, Chairperson of SWI Lothian Federation speaking about her custom made farm doll











On Saturday, March 4th 2017, at 10 am in the Star Room, the JGC Film Appreciation Club launched its first Women’s Film Season with a friendly and informal forum entitled ‘The Woman’s Platform’.  The event was held to commemorate International Women’s Day, and to contribute to the Centre’s effort to reach the wider community. ‘The Woman’s Platform’ was aimed at individuals and women’s groups from various fields to share experiences, anecdotes, challenges, and achievements with each other and with members of the public. A panel of eight female speakers briefly shared their background, activities and experiences with the audience. The audience was engaged and each speaker was asked numerous questions about their experiences and opinions on various issues relating to women.

Catherine Simpson, Writer-in-Residence at Tyne & Esk Writing Group


Emily Armatage, Secretary, SWI Lothian Federation







Dr. Sue Northrop, Dementia Friendly East Lothian

The esteemed panel comprised: Emily Armatage, Secretary, Scottish Women’s Institute Lothian Federation; Helen Bleck,  Freelance Editor and former JGC Heritage & Development Officer; Lesley Crozier, Corporate Equality, Diversity & Human Rights Officer East & Midlothian Councils; Susan Kinnaird, Chair, Scottish Women’s Institute Lothian Federation; Dr. Sue Northrop, Vice Chair, British Psychological Society / Dementia Friendly East Lothian; Bernie Rowan-Ross, Representative, Haddington Spinners & Weavers; Marie Sharp, Senior Reporter, East Lothian Courier; Catherine Simpson, Author and Writer-in-Residence, Tyne & Esk Writers.

The forum was followed by a tour of the Archive Service SWI 100th Anniversary exhibition in the JGC Museum gallery and latterly with a film screening of a novel by a Scottish female filmmaker. Naturally, the film revolved around an enigmatic young female character.

Helen Bleck, Freelance editor and former JGC Heritage Development Officer

Marie Sharp, Senior Reporter, East Lothian Courier

Lesley Crozier, Corporate Equality, Diversity & Human Rights Officer for East and Midlothian Conucils

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