Mothering Sunday

How Mothering Sunday became Mother's Day

Children across the country honour their mothers by sending them a card or giving them a bunch of flowers on the fourth Sunday in Lent.  But do you know how the arrival of American servicemen in East Anglia helped to revive the centuries-old festival of Mothering Sunday?

Mothering Sunday is the day when children give presents, flowers, and home-made cards to their mothers as a token of thanks for their love and care.

It is always held on the fourth Sunday of Lent and, as the dates of Easter and Lent vary, the actual date chosen to celebrate Mothering Sunday also differs. The Epistle reading from the Book of Common Prayer for this festival gives a special place to the theme of maternal love. Galatians 4:26 states that "Jerusalem which is above is free; which is Mother of us all."

Traditionally, Mothering Sunday was the occasion when English children who had gone to work as apprentices and domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mothers and families.

Although it is often called Mother's Day, its origin is different from the American festival of that name and it is observed on another day.  

At the outset Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day were two distinct festivals with entirely different beginnings. Mothering Sunday originated in seventeenth-century British culture; Mother’s Day was an American innovation in 1913.

Over the years the customs connected with Mothering Sunday have changed and today the sentiments in both countries are similar. 

So how did Mothering Sunday become confused with Mother’s Day?  The answer has its roots in East Anglia’s local history.

Centuries ago it was considered important for people to return to their home or “mother” church at least once a year. So each year, in the middle of Lent, everyone would visit their “mother” church, or the main church or cathedral of the area.

Most historians think that it was this annual Lenten theme that led to the custom of working children being given the day off to visit their family. At that time it was quite normal for children to leave home for work once they reached ten years of age.

As they walked back home along the country lanes on Mothering Sunday, children would pick wild flowers or primroses to take to church or give to their mothers.

Often they brought a gift with them, a “mothering cake” – a kind of fruitcake with two layers of marzipan, known as simnel cake.

Mothering Sunday was also called Refreshment Sunday, because the fasting rules for Lent were relaxed that day. But, by the nineteenth century, the holiday was dying out, and by the 1930s the keeping of many of the old Mothering Sunday customs had lapsed in many English parishes. 

Its revival was brought about just a decade later through the influence of the American servicemen stationed in East Anglia during the Second World War. 

A new festival to honour mothers had emerged in the United States of America at the start of the twentieth century. Mother’s Day was introduced by Anna Jarvis, a young woman whose mother died in May 1906. A year later, Anna told a friend that she wished the day could be set aside to pay tribute to all mothers.

The idea began to spread and gain wide support. The governor of Anna’s state, Philadelphia, proclaimed the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day.

The festival continued to gain popularity and, in 1913, the US Senate and House of Representatives officially dedicated the day to the memory of “the best mother in the world – your mother”.

Nearly thirty years later in December 1941 the United States entered the war and by the second half of 1942 American servicemen began to arrive in East Anglia in large numbers.

Many more airfields were needed and East Anglia’s flat landscape was perfect for runways and new airbases. It was here that the Allied forces launched their air power to raid and severely weaken the German stronghold on the Continent.

Thousands upon thousands of American airmen – many of them outside the United States for the first time – called East Anglia their second home. Altogether nearly half a million American servicemen passed through the region.

Away from their families, these young men were surprised to find the English did not have a Mother's Day. They often regarded their English hostess as a kind of foster-mother and each year on the second Sunday in May they did what they would have done for their own mothers – gave her presents and flowers to thank her for her kindness and care.

British sons and daughters caught on to the idea and, after the Americans had returned home at the end of the war, they continued the practice, reverting back to marking it on the fourth Sunday in Lent.

Thus the Americans based in East Anglia helped to revive the centuries-old tradition of paying homage to mothers with a bunch of flowers.

© Owen Spencer-Thomas

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