Some time in February, you start to notice all the sickly cards in the shops. A flowery tsunami of pastel pinks and yellows. Am I the only mother who likes cobalt? Then there are conspicuous displays of chocolates and cosmetics. A lot of displays nowadays seem to feature Prosecco, I notice. I don’t disapprove. Then the articles in the magazines about what to buy your mother for Mother’s Day. Then the ads for lunches, afternoon teas and dinners. Then the tasteful flower arrangements appear in the shops. Then the last-minute bunches of flowers appear in the petrol stations. And then it’s Mother’s Day.
I should hate it, but I don’t. People complain that it’s a Hallmark Holiday. I always protest vehemently. Mother’s Day has a long and distinguished history and served an important role in our society. Festivals honouring mothers go back to the ancient Romans and probably beyond. What we celebrate is the Anglican festival of Mothering Sunday, which was instituted in the 16th century. It began as a day in which people would return for services to the ‘mother church,’ i.e. where they were baptised or first worshiped. It evolved from that into a religious day in honour of mothers. It is always the fourth Sunday of Lent. Did you ever notice that it moves around every year? That’s because Easter does, therefore so does Lent and so does Mother’s Day. It became an occasion when servants were given the day off to go home to visit their mothers. This seems like something quite insignificant to us now. But in the days when huge numbers of people worked in domestic service and when it consisted of long hours of unrelenting drudgery, it must have been a hugely important day. For many families, Mothering Sunday was the only time the whole family came together, as servants often did not get time off at other important occasions such as Christmas. You could count on being with your mother on Mothering Sunday and it might be the only day where you could be sure of that. So people used this occasion to visit their mothers, picking wild flowers along the way and bringing a Simnel Cake. In some parts of England, the festival was known as Simnel Sunday. Simnel Cake is made of almond paste or marzipan and also contains dried fruit and spices. At the time, it was probably an inconceivably exotic confection. Also, it sounds like something that was easy to parcel up and would keep well during a long journey. These were sentimental AND practical people. It you want to have a go at a Simnel Cake, or Easter Cake as it’s now also know, you can find a recipe here.
Another reason Mothering Sunday was special was that in many churches in England, it was the only day on which a couple could get married. It was probably therefore a very exciting day in a parish. And it meant that couples would always have a deeply personal connection with Mothering Sunday thereafter.
In the late 19th century, Mothering Sunday fell out of favour. Maybe the advent of the railways meant that people worked huge distances from their home and travelling back to see their mother just became impossible? Maybe employment opportunities swung away from domestic service and towards factory work, which had more predictable hours (albeit still long hours and difficult work)? I’m not sure. But in the early years of the 20th century, the Mothering Sunday Movement gained momentum and put the festival back on the calendar. And so our modern Mother’s Day began. No-one centuries ago could have foreseen the commercial nonsense that would wrap itself around this lovely occasion, but I like to think the values of it are just the same as the were all those years ago. Put your mother at the heart of your day and honour what she has done for you. Even a godless reprobate such as myself likes this festival!
So I embrace this lovely day as part of a long tradition in which people far away from their mothers got to honour then in person. And yet I know how deeply sad it is so for so many people today. Bereaved mothers whose children are not here to bring home a lovely craft made in school or make them breakfast in bed. People whose own mothers have passed away and who can no longer enjoy special time with them. Some people find today sad because their relationship with their own mother is fraught with difficulty. Maybe they have lacked a positive maternal influence their entire lives. And mothers whose children are estranged from them can find this day heartbreaking, too. And yet those people can find comfort in Mother’s Day and can make it a meaningful and loving day, which is quite inspiring.
Wherever you are, I hope you are having a special day. If you are sad, I hope you have memories of happy Mother’s Day of old to comfort you. If you find Mother’s Day too awful and just want to ignore it, I hope you get the space to do that. Most of all, I hope you have a day where someone takes care of you and keeps you in their heart.