Sunday, 15 March 2015

So Is It Mothering Sunday or Mother's Day?

Happy Mother’s Day!

You've not forgotten, have you? Mother’s Day? Or is it Mothering Sunday?

I remember making a Mother’s Day card every year at primary school, copying down whatever twee verse the teacher put on the board. That was back in the good old days, before there were family restaurants and pubs doing family Sunday lunches. Dad always made dinner and my sister and I washed up. Now, mums can expect tasty and reliable food. Without the kids arguing about the washing-up. Or worrying about the state of the kitchen after dad’s annual solo cookery effort.

I guess schools still get children to make greetings cards, though.

Hang on. Is it Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday?

We tend to think of Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day as the same thing, but they’ll actually two different celebrations held on the same day.

In Europe, we have Mothering Sunday, a Christian festival which falls on the 4th Sunday in Lent. It’s always the middle Sunday in Lent, half way between Shrove Tuesday and Good Friday. The religious calendar is a complete mystery to me. I’d be lost without subtle hints in the shops reminding me to buy a nice card. Or helpfully suggesting lots of other things my mum might like.

Many countries have Mother’s Day, a celebration of motherhood, held on either the second Sunday in May (as in the US) or 8th March, International Women’s Day. Reviving an earlier campaign in the US for a national Mother's Day holiday, Anna Reese Jarvis and her friends won influential support and their efforts resulted in the holiday being granted in 1914.

Many celebrations of mothers and motherhood world-wide evolved from ancient festivals celebrating Goddesses rather than mothers. An annual festival in ancient Egypt honoured Isis, the mother of the pharaohs. The ancient Greeks had a spring festival for Rhea, mother of the better-known gods and goddesses. The Romans celebrated Hilaria in mid-March, honouring their mother goddess Cybele. The Christian church developed this into an event honouring the Virgin Mary and “mother church”.

The term “Mothering Sunday” in Britain appears to have started in the 17th century. Historically, people regularly worshipped at their nearest parish (“daughter”) church, but they thought it was important to visit their home (“mother”) church, the one they’d been baptised in. In time, worshippers tended to make this trip annually in the middle of Lent, and it became known as going “a-mothering”. This annual trip was also a family reunion.

Back in the good old days, children might leave home to work at the age of ten. This led to the tradition of young people, particularly domestic servants or apprentices, being given the day off to visit their families. Though presumably only those who were close enough to walk there and back in a day.

The Lent fasting rules were relaxed on Mothering Sunday meant it was also known as Refreshment Sunday. Young people returning home on Mothering Sunday might bring their mothers gifts or a "mothering cake". Simnel cake is associated with Mothering Sunday, but it dates back to at least medieval times. It’s usually a fruit cake with a layer of marzipan in the middle, topped with more marzipan or a saffron-coloured flour and water crust. It had to keep until Easter, so it was boiled then baked. There may well be a lot of Victorian embellishments in the modern telling, but it’s still a nice story.

Another dish associated with Mothering Sunday was “furmety”, wheat grains boiled in sweet milk, sugared and spiced. In northern England and in Scotland, it was pancakes made of pease fried in butter (pease is basically boiled dried peas).

I like old traditions being kept alive. But would my mum really appreciate a long-life fruit cake, a wheat version of rice pudding, or mushy pea pancakes? Maybe a tasty meal in a nice pub would be a safer bet.

By the early 20th century, Mothering Sunday was little more than a religious festival in Europe. It was revived in Britain when US servicemen billeted in British households during the World War Two thanked their hostesses with presents and flowers on their Mother’s Day in May. The British picked up the idea. After the war, the new idea of Mother’s Day merged with Mothering Sunday. The commercial opportunities were not missed. A little relentless promotion turned it into a nation-wide event by the 1950’s.

So, whether you celebrate Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day, it’s the one day every year when we do what we can to make our mums feel appreciated. It’s the thought that counts, whether it’s flowers, a nice meal or some other treat. Many will say they don’t want any fuss, but don’t believe a word of it - they all appreciate being made to feel that little bit special for the day.

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