“All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

REG: The Life of Brian

In a roundabout way they created Mothering Sunday.

In pre-Christian times, at the time of the vernal equinox, during the mid March festival of Hilaria, the Romans paid homage to the goddess Cybele, the ‘Magna Mater’ or Great Mother. The rites included nine days of abstinence, whipping, scourging and ever popular castration rituals. With the coming of Christianity Hilaria was absorbed into the liturgical calendar as Laetare Sunday, celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent in honour of Mary, the mother of Christ and the mother church. Laetare Sunday became known as Mothering Sunday.

“Every Midlent Sunday is a great day…when all the children and godchildren meet at the head of cheife of the family and have a feast. They call it Mothering-day.” RICHARD SYMONDS Diary 1644

During the 16th century, long before the concept of “holidays” was invented, Laetare Sunday was the one day of the year when domestic servants were released from their duties and allowed to go ‘a-mothering’, to meet up with their families and visit the church in which they were baptised. In some parts of the country it became the tradition for dutiful daughters to bake their mothers a rich, saffron flavoured Simnel Cake and take it with them on Mothering Sunday.

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 me.

ROBERT HERRICK (Hesperides, 1648)

Simnel cake

Simnel Cakes… ornamented with scallops - in commemoration of the banquet given by Joseph to his brethren, which forms the first lesson of Mid-Lent Sunday, and the feeding of the five thousand, which forms the gospel of the day. The word ‘simnel’ is through O.Fr from Late Latin ‘siminellus’, fine bread, Lat. ‘simila’, the finest wheat flour.

BREWERS Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

With the passage of time the custom of Mothering Sunday fell into disfavour….

“Writers in…‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ for 1784 confess their ignorance of it; and in the nineteenth century, and the first half of the twentieth century the custom seems to have been in decline. In 1936 the Folk-Lore Society reported that ‘the observances of the mothering custom have become rare or have been discontinued.’”

IONA AND PETER OPIE “The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren” 1959

Anna Jarvis

And so it would have continued into total oblivion were it not for Miss Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia, USA. Her own mother, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, the founder of the Mother’s Day Work Clubs died on 9th May 1906. The bereavement convinced Anna that a special day should be set aside each year to honour motherhood. Gathering supporters and using what some have interpreted as emotional blackmail - (“anyone who opposes this does not love his own mother”) - the U.S government was persuaded to mark the second Sunday in May as “Mother’s Day”, and establish a national holiday, dedicated to “the best mother in the world, your mother.”

Although Mother’s Day soon became a popular institution and a widely observed event, by the 1920’s Anna Jarvis was becoming increasingly embittered by the growing commercialisation of the holiday…

Mothers Day Card

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother–and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”


It was the arrival of American servicemen in the U.K during that Second World War and their continuing enthusiasm to honour their mothers on the second Sunday in May that reminded Britain of its own, virtually forgotten, Mothering Sunday festival. After the war, realising that there was a profit to be made; U.K manufacturers began producing Mother’s Day cards and gifts, if not always the most appropriate…

“The Ideal Gift for Mother’s Day - Infra-Red Table Griller with Automatic Revolving Spit!”


As Iona and Peter Opie noted…

“In 1956 the majority of high Street shops were displaying “Mother’s Day” gifts in their windows; confectioners had special purple-printed bands around their every-day tins of toffee, florists were accused of increasing their prices, and stationers who as little as three years before had ignored the occasion now offered for sale a glory of tinselled sentiments.”

Mother’s Day and Mothering Sunday have now run into each other and become one and the same- but by whatever name they are known and whenever and however they are celebrated it is undeniable that they are celebrated still. Although the educator John Erskine thought that Mother’s Day was offensive because it implies that we need an annual nudge to remember our mothers, nudge or not, on that day most of us do. Good or bad, without them we would not be.

God could not be everywhere and therefore he made mothers.


A Mothering Sunday Song on YouTube written by Richard Durrant and performed by Richard and his children - Daisy aged 10, Django 8 and Felix 6.

– from Martyn Day