Mothering Sunday: How an Ancient Christian Church Service Led to Mother's Day in the UK
Mother's Day is celebrated on different dates in different parts of the world. In the USA, it is a fixed day, but in the UK, it is a moveable feast because it is linked with a Christian Church service conducted during Lent. The Mothering Sunday service is held three Sundays before Easter. This article describes how the customs associated with Mothering Sunday, which had died away over the centuries, were revived in England during the early 20th century and led to the popularity of honouring our mothers on the same day.
What Is a Moveable Feast?
A moveable feast is a religious feast day that does not occur on the same calendar date each year. Easter Day and other Christian holy days also occur on different dates each year.
The History of Mothering Sunday AKA Mother's Day
Mothering Sunday falls during Lent. It is also variously known as Laetare Sunday (principally in the Roman Catholic Church or High Anglican Church), Refreshment Sunday, Mid-Lent Sunday, and Rose Sunday. It is the day when, historically, the devout Roman Catholic population was given a days’ release from the 40-day fast which was observed from Ash Wednesday until Good Friday. It was customary for servants to be given Mothering Sunday off as a holiday (a holy day).Throughout the kingdom, the devout made a pilgrimage to the Mother Church in which they had been baptised or which they had attended as a child. The custom became known as going a-mothering.
The return to the Mother Church inevitably meant that it was a time when families were reunited. Since this day was a release from the Lent Fast, during which no rich foods were allowed, it became a tradition for a Simnel cake to be baked for eating with the reunited family.
I'll to thee a simnel bring,
'Gainst thou go'st a-mothering:
So that when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou'lt give to me.— Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
Symbolism of the Eleven Balls of Marzipan on Simnel Cakes
A Simnel cake is a light fruit cake covered in a layer of marzipan and traditionally decorated with eleven balls of marzipan to represent the eleven disciples of Jesus Christ; eleven being the twelve original disciples minus the traitor Judas Iscariot, whose act of betrayal led to the crucifixion of Jesus.
The cake traditionally has a layer of marzipan baked in the middle and the top of the cake is toasted when the decoration has been added.
Legend has it that the cake was named for Lambert Simnel, a pretender to the throne of England who was pardoned for his crimes and then worked in the kitchens of Henry VII of England circa 1500 C.E.
Mother's Day Dates in the United Kingdom
- Sunday 22nd March 2020
- Sunday 14th March 2021
- Sunday 27th March 2022
- Sunday 19th March 2023
- Sunday 10th March 2024
- Sunday 30th March 2025
The Decline of Mothering Sunday Church Services in England
The celebration of Mothering Sunday started to decline after Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, establishing Protestantism and the Church of England as the official faith in England. In later centuries, non-conformist religious groups gained ground and the medieval High Church Mothering Sunday service further declined.
The Revival of Mothering Sunday in England
The village of Coddington on the outskirts of Newark on Trent in Nottinghamshire honours the memory of Constance Penswick Smith as the instigator of the revival of Mothering Sunday in the English Church. Constance arrived in Coddington at the age of 12, when her father was appointed vicar of All Saints Church. An independent spirit, she spent some time working abroad before returning to England and finding employment in Nottingham.
In 1913, Constance read an article in the evening newspaper which reported the plans of an American, Anna Jarvis from Philadelphia, to introduce into England the American festival of Mother’s Day, celebrated on the 2nd May. Constance clearly had strong feelings about the fact that the American tradition, despite the similarity in the name, bore none of the Christian values of Mothering Sunday because she subsequently devoted the next thirty years to a campaign to develop an English, Christian, Mother's Day celebration.
Constance set up her headquarters at 15 Regent Street, Nottingham, where she designed Mothering Sunday cards for schoolchildren to present to their mothers. She publicized the day with articles, wrote plays about Mothering Sunday, and collected suitable hymns for use on the day.
Later she founded The Society for the Observance of Mothering Sunday and in 1921 published a book in which she had collated her findings from research that she had conducted into the observance of the ancient custom in other countries.
Gradually, the clergy became interested in Constance’s campaign. Reverend Killer of St. Cyprian’s Church in Nottingham was particularly interested and used the hymns that Constance had selected as appropriate for the celebration of Mothering Sunday. Constance moved into the parish and when the new St. Cyprian's Church was dedicated in 1936 (coincidentally the church in which this writers' parents were married). A canister containing the order of the Mothering Sunday service and other materials relating to the day was placed beneath the altar. At the same time, Constance’s four brothers, who had all taken Holy Orders, were each conducting Mothering Sunday services in their own churches.
Mother's Day in England in the 21st Century
England in the twenty-first century is largely secular. Mothering Sunday services are still conducted for practising Christians but those who do not attend church nevertheless take the opportunity to formally thank and honour their mothers. Historically, children collected bunches of wild violets from the wayside to present to their mothers as they made their way towards home and violets are still a feature on many Mothering Sunday cards. But nowadays Mothering Sunday has become a commercial opportunity when Mother’s Day cards, bouquets of Spring flowers, chocolate, manufactured gifts, and occasionally a shop-bought Simnel cake, are given as gifts.
References and Further Reading
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 GlenR