Simnel cake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I’ll to thee a Simnel bring,
‘Gainst thou go a-Mothering,
So that when she blesseth thee
Half the blessing thou’ll give me.
ROBERT HERRICK (1591-1674)
Living in Hungary, I’m often asked why we celebrate Mother’s Day in Britain on a different date from most of Europe. I answer that we don’t celebrate ‘Mother’s Day’, we celebrate ‘Mothering Sunday‘, in which human motherhood is just one aspect.
With Lent half gone, the Church allows a break from fasting, a ‘breakfast’ or ‘refreshment’. The Gospel for the day tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand and so, appropriately, the day became known as Refreshment Sunday. In the early Church, there was a special ordinance requiring the priest and people to visit the ‘Mother church‘ of the district on this day, and this custom became associated with pleasant gatherings of families and reunions of children with mothers. Hence the popular name, ‘Mothering Sunday’.
By the 17th Century it became common practice for serving maids and apprentices to be given a holiday on this day so they might visit their mothers. In those days, they left their homes at the age of nine or ten, then living in accommodation provided by their masters. Mothering Sunday would be the only day in the year on which they would see their families and keep up their links with home. They took gifts of flowers or special cakes made for the occasion.
These cakes were spicy and made with a fine flour which had a Latin name, ‘simila’, hence the cakes were known as Simnel cakes. These are sometimes decorated with little fruits, artificial flowers with eggs and nests – looking forward to the great festival of Easter.
The picture on the right above, shows our Oliver presenting his mum with Spring flowers in church, a tradition which is repeated in many parish churches and chapels throughout the UK. So we celebrate motherhood in the form of our human mother, the mother church and the ‘motherhood’ of God which, unlike our human mothers, but like ‘agape’, ‘has no end’.
So, all this has little to do with Mother’s Day, which is a North American institution. On 9 May 1906, Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia lost her mother and succeeded in persuading the state governors to proclaim the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day.
In Pennsylvania it became a state holiday, and other states followed suit until in 1913 the US Senate and House of Representatives dedicated the day to mothers. It is therefore, by definition, not a religious festival, and never has been. When the ‘Yanks’ came to Britain at the end of the Second World War, they brought these traditions with them, hence the reason that ‘Mothering Sunday’ has turned into a secular ‘Mother’s Day’ for many in Britain.