Mothering Sunday is a peculiarly British celebration. In contrast to state-sponsored days honouring women or mothers in other religions or countries, it is an ancient custom of the people that acknowledges the intimate connection between Christian faith, close-knit families founded on a mother’s love, and a free society.
CONSTANCE Smith worked in a Nottingham dispensary for the Girls’ Friendly Society, helping young women with no family, especially unmarried mothers. In 1920, her experiences led her to campaign for the wider observance of Mothering Sunday.
In mediaeval times, Christians had gathered on the fourth Sunday in Lent at larger parish churches or cathedrals – the ‘mother church’ — to celebrate (in St Paul’s words) the Jerusalem which is above, which is free and the mother of us all.* In token of that freedom, servants were granted a holiday, scattered families were reunited, and the strict Lenten fast was relaxed.
By Constance’s day these customs were almost forgotten; but she trusted them to fill her girls with longing for the rewards and responsibilities of a Christian mother’s love.
No celebration is complete without confectionery, and for Mothering Sunday Robert Herrick chose simnel cake:*
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.
* See Galatians 4:21-31. The fourth Sunday of Lent is the Sunday of St John of the Ladder in the Orthodox Churches. The central concept of his book ‘The Ladder’ (John lived in the Monastery of St Catherine on Sinai in the 6th century) is that we rise on the rungs of purification and illumination to a heavenly Jerusalem of freedom from the passions; there could be no more appropriate day for Mothering Sunday in the whole calendar.
* Robert Herrick (1591-1674) was a churchman and one of the best-loved poets of his generation, which included John Donne and Herrick’s mentor, Ben Jonson. Simnel cake (probably from the Latin ‘simila’, fine flour) is a light lenten fruitcake, with a layer of marzipan in the middle and another on top. Since Victorian times, twelve marzipan balls have been added for decoration, one for each of the Apostles.