Fraser’s Phrases: Mothering Sunday

Its easy to make cross-cultural assumptions about traditions which share a similar name. After all, if there’s a Mother’s Day in the US, which falls on the second Sunday in May, and there’s a Mothering Sunday in the UK, which also falls on a Sunday, only this time it’s the fourth one in Lent (which is this Sunday coming up, as I’m sure you know), and they both serve as a chance to pay tribute to the women who brought us into being, they must be the same thing, right?

Nuh, and indeed, uh.

The American Mother’s Day isn’t even 100 years old yet. It may have started with Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870 (which was actually about disarmament, not family ties), and it may have rumbled on as a hot topic throughout the following years, until Anna Jarvis managed to convince president Woodrow Wilson to declare it a public holiday in 1914, but it has nothing to do with Mothering Sunday. And in fact Anna herself was so disillusioned with the commercial hijacking of her original idea – simply a celebration of mothers, not an excuse to sell gifts and cards – that she ended up bitterly opposing her own brainchild, which would be ironic if it wasn’t so sad.

However, Mothering Sunday has roots that go back centuries, to Roman times. The Hilaria festival was held in the middle of March to celebrate the mother goddess Cybele, a festival which continued, as Europe converted to Christianity, as Laetare Sunday. This took place on the fourth Sunday in Lent, and was a celebration of the Virgin Mary, mother of God, and of the mother church.

It’s this latter part that forms the basis of the phrase Mothering Sunday. During the 1700s, it became the tradition for people to return to their ‘mother’ church – the biggest local church in the area, or a cathedral – for a special Laetare Sunday service. There was even a traditional ‘clipping’ of the church, in which the congregation formed a protective circle around it, and special cakes were baked.

Attendance became a chance for servants (some of whom will still have been children) to attend church with their families, outside of the influence of the people they served. As such, in the days before vacations and bank holidays, Mothering Sunday became the only day of the year that families of humble origins could get together.

These servent children would pick wild flowers on the way, and present them to their own mothers, out of the simple joy of being able to spend some time with them. And in this sense, Mothering Sunday became a day to celebrate spending time with your mum.

Here’s where it gets a little messy. By the early years of the 20th Century, with religious observance being less of a pressing concern to society at large, and with improved working conditions for all working-class children, Mothering Sunday had become less important, largely replaced by Christmas as the big festival for gathering a family together. However, Constance Penswick-Smith, of Coddington, Nottinghamshire, had been observing Anna Jarvis’s efforts in America, and began the Mothering Sunday Movement – beginning with her book Mothering Sunday – in order to make sure that there would not be a British secular celebration of motherhood that did not carry the weight of religious history behind it.

Unfortunately, once American and Canadian soldiers had been posted to the UK during the Second World War, the idea of Mothering Sunday as a religious festival was on the wane, and their observance of Mother’s Day gave British entrepreneurs a brainwave. They began heavily promoting the sale of cards and gifts and flowers, until Mothering Sunday simply became the same commercial celebration of motherhood that so vexed Anna Jarvis and Constance Penswick-Smith. However, the date remained, fourth Sunday in Lent.

There are still some traditions attached to Mothering Sunday which come from within the Church. Some churches will only allow Lenten weddings to take place on this date, and there is an expectation that mothers attending church services on the day will be presented with a bunch of spring flowers.

However, these are tiny considerations next to the far louder cries from the high street, demanding that you buy CD compilations of Barry Manilow songs or special presentation packs of leaf tea, just to make sure that your mum doesn’t think you don’t care. We all know it’s daft, but you try refusing to participate and see how far it gets you.

Note: Father’s day in the UK is just Father’s Day. It’s a Hallmark holiday and an excuse for popular culture to misrepresent the men of the world  as golf-loving, shed-dwelling, soccer-mad Top Gear obsessives who…wait, did I say “misrepresent” there? Oh sorry. I meant “accurately depict,” sorry!

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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