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Mother, dear mother, the years have been long
Since I last listened your lullaby song:
Sing, then, and unto my soul it shall seem
Womanhood's years have been only a dream.

ROCK ME TO SLEEP Elizabeth Chase Akers Allen

Today most people know that we’re rapidly approaching Mothering Sunday. It falls on the 4th Sunday in Lent , March 31st and its arrival is enthusiastically welcomed with shops full of flowers, chocolates, greeting cards and other gifts… and yet despite this eagerness only 70 years this festival was largely unobserved.

Its history can be traced back to the 16th Century when on ‘Laetare Sunday’, the 4th Sunday in Lent, people would go to their own local church or the one in which they had been baptised for a special thanksgiving service to mark Christian fellowship. The word Laetare comes from the Latin laetare, “to rejoice”. The day also became an occasion for household servants to visit their distant families, often picking flowers on the way as gifts. Eventually, this tradition of visiting families and giving gifts evolved into the Mothering Sunday.

By Victorian times the custom had largely died out, both here in Britain and in America where one woman felt its loss. In 1876 Ann Reeves Jarvis, a lay preacher within the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, closed a Sunday school lesson with this prayer…

“I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.”

Her daughter, Anna Jarvis, was inspired and motivated by this plea. On May 10, 1908, three years after her mother’s death, she held a memorial ceremony at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, West Virginia, to honour her mother and all mothers marking what was the first official observance of Mother’s Day. Although Jarvis did not attend this service, she sent five hundred white carnations for all who attended the service….

“Its whiteness is to symbolize the truth, purity and broad-charity of mother love; its fragrance, her memory, and her prayers. The carnation does not drop its petals, but hugs them to its heart as it dies, and so, too, mothers hug their children to their hearts, their mother love never dying. When I selected this flower, I was remembering my mother’s bed of white pinks.”

Although Mother’s Day is now a regular and respected American festival held on the 2nd Sunday in May its creator Anna Jarvis would not have approved of its commercialisation…

“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!”

Anna Jarvis died in a sanatorium on November 24th 1948, her medical bills paid by people in the floral and greeting card industries!

Inspired by the work of Anna Jarvis a similar movement to reintroduce a special day to honour mothers in Britain was started by Constance Penswick-Smith who was born in Dagnall, Buckinghamshire in the year of 1878.

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“The American “Mother’s Day” is delightful as far as it goes - but it superfluous. We already have our own Mothering Sunday which from time immemorial has been kept at Mid-Lent. Let us work for the revival of the ‘Day In Praise of Mothers’ which is indigenous to this country. The whole is greater than its part and Mothering Sunday gives all that the American ‘Day’ offers and much more besides.”

In her booklet “The Revival of Mothering Sunday”, first published in 1920, Penswick-Smith said that the real meaning of ‘a day in praise of mothers’ was fully expressed in the liturgy of the Church of England for the fourth Sunday of Lent when honour was given to mother church and to earthly mothers. Penswick did not want Mothering Sunday to be related to only one religion. Her vision was to have Mothering Sunday celebrated by all people. To accomplish this, she enlisted the aid of many organisations including the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, trade unions and in March of 1919 even the Queen Mary.

When Penswick-Smith died in 1938 Mothering Sunday was being celebrated throughout England and its communities. After the 2nd World War manufacturers seized on the idea that the day should be celebrated with presents and by the mid 1950’s the majority of High Street shops were promoting ‘Mother’s Day’ gifts. Although by tradition the expected present was a posy of violets or primroses or saffron flavoured Simnel Cake by May 1955 the Daily Telegraph was suggesting that “An Infra-Red Table Griller was an Automatic Revolving Spit” was the perfect gift for Mum. Today the emphasis has moved to ‘Mum’s favourite DVD’, personalised mobile phone cases and “A Night in the Front Row”!

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When I was a baby my Mum would sit me on the draining board and wash me in the sink. As she did she would often sing the following song by Henry Burr, “M-O-T-H-E-R (A Word That Means the World to Me)” released on record in February 1916. It was a big Mothering Sunday hit!

– from Martyn Day