Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day: a short history

Britain’s Mothering Sunday looks like the sister holiday to the U.S. Mother’s Day, but its roots (no surprise here) go back further and–I was going to say it’s a stranger story, but they’re both strange. 

Let’s start with Britain’s holiday.

Mothering Sunday

This started out as a church event that some date back to the 16th century and others trace to full-on medieval times. It had nothing to do with honoring mothers. On the fourth Sunday of Lent (March 27 this year), people went to the main church or cathedral near where they lived, which was called their mother church and which had a special service that day. The rest of the year, they went to their nearest church–a daughter church. 

You’re right: Hierarchy was built into everything.

One theory of the tradition’s origins is that it grew out of a Bible passage that was assigned as the reading for that day. (Apparently, the Church had assigned readings for Sundays and holidays. Who knew?) It had to do with Jerusalem, “which is the mother of us all.” And since it’s all in the interpretation, you can get from there to the mother church in three easy steps. Or two if you’re good at the game.

Marginally relevant photo: spring flowers. Actually a little early for either Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday.

The day took on the air of a holiday. One source says domestic servants (that may exclude other categories of underpaid underlings) were given the day off to “go a-mothering” and also to visit their families. That might include their flesh-and-blood mothers, although since having children was a hazardous occupation you couldn’t take it for granted.

Another source doesn’t limit the day off to domestic servants but includes apprentices and reminds us that children as young as ten left home to work away. In this telling, as they walked the country lanes on their way home they picked a few wildflowers as a gift. 

It’s a sweet image and, I suspect, based more on guesswork than documentation. But that in itself is guesswork. Don’t take it too seriously. 

Another source (the link’s somewhere below–don’t bother me when I’m working, sweetheart) says the mother church tradition was medieval and the tradition of visiting family didn’t start until the 16th century–and it had a practical reason: The holiday fell during what was known as the hungry gap, when the winter’s stores were running low or used up and the fields and hedgerows didn’t offer much to eat. So servants and apprentices might go home bringing food or money. 

Let’s hope they had some to bring.


Since it’s a law that you can’t have a holiday without food (even the holidays where you fast put a big emphasis on what you eat when the fast ends), Mothering Sunday is associated with a cake, called Simnel cake, which for some reason gets a capital S. It’s a fruit cake with two layers of almond paste and eleven layers of religious symbolism.

How’d they get away with cake when it was Lent and people weren’t supposed to eat anything tasty or fun? 

Aha! They did it by reading the small print. The rules of Lent were relaxed for this one day, and so the day was also known as Refreshment Sunday. And that too was linked to a Bible verse, the one about Jesus feeding a multitude with bread and fish. Not with a fruit cake with two layers of marzipan, but it’s all in the interpretation.

The day was also called Mid-Lent Sunday, in case that’s on the test.

A break in the tradition

All of that–with the possible exception of the cake–went out of fashion in the 20th century.

Enter Constance Adelaide Smith, who kicked off a revival, starting with her 1921 book, written under the pseudonym C. Penswick Smith and subtly titled The Revival of Mothering Sunday.

She called for a holiday to honor  many forms of motherhood–the mother church, Mother Earth, mothers of children, the mother of Jesus, and–well, I’m sure she could’ve gone on. And did. The tradition  already existed, she argued, but needed official recognition to kick it into high gear.

She did not say “high gear.”

The medieval idea of motherhood as she saw it–at least according to one source–was rugged and diverse. 

Rugged? Well, the British LIbrary’s blog illustrates this point with a medieval painting of Mary handing off the baby Jesus to an angel (“Here, you, do something useful and hold the kid”) so she can sit on the devil and do a spot of wrestling. While wearing a pristine, floor-length skirt. To the modern eye, it’s an odd picture–especially the freeze-frame wrestling match–but I’ll admit to liking it.

Sort of. But only for its oddity.

Diverse? The medieval holiday wasn’t about honoring your own particular mother but motherhood in many forms. Or at least in one of the forms Smith included in her list: the mother church.

Smith herself had no children, which may be relevant here.

Yet another source, though, mentions that the medieval holiday wasn’t the uplifting event she imagined. Among other things, parishes were likely to get into brawls over who’d go first in the processions.

These things are always neater in hindsight.

Smith had another reason to go back to the medieval period. She’d been inspired by the U.S. creation of Mother’s Day (1914, since you asked) but didn’t want it to displace British traditions.

According to historian Cordelia Moyse, “A lot of people felt that industrialisation and urbanisation were destroying British culture and community.” So Smith took the medieval tradition, knocked off the mud and manure, polished it up a bit, and presented it as home grown, deeply rooted, and coming from a time of greater harmony, when people knew their neighbors and got into fights in church processions.

The idea caught fire at the end of World War I–according to one source because of the country’s many losses in the war. That doesn’t entirely make sense–it was young men who died in the war, not mothers–but grief’s a funny thing and will pour itself into any container it finds.

By 1938–or so it was said–Mothering Sunday was celebrated in every parish in Britain and every country in the empire.

Mother’s Day

Now we shift to the United States, where we already know Mother’s Day became an official holiday in 1914.

How’d that happen? Well, kiddies, it started in the previous century (that’s the 19th; you’re welcome) in several smallish ways. Before the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis helped start Mothers’ Day Work Clubs, which were to teach local women how to care for their children. Forgive the cynicism, but my guess is that local women had been bringing up children for generations–that’s why some were still available for Ann R. J. to teach–but never mind. I’m sure Ann R. J. knew how to do it better than they did.

Then in 1870, Julia Ward Howe (she wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and was a pacifist and abolitionist) wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” which called for mothers to unite and promote world peace. In 1873, she called for a Mother’s Peace Day. 

Juliet Calhoun Blakely, a temperance activist, convinced Albion, Michigan, to celebrate a Mother’s Day in the 1870s.

All of that seemed to go nowhere, as these things so often do. Then in 1907, Anna Jarvis held a memorial service for her mother, Ann R. J. Who was dead at the time. That doesn’t seem entirely relevant, but see above about grief.

In 1908, Jarvis got a Philadelphia department store owner, John Wanamaker, to back a Mother’s Day celebration at a West Virginia church and, ever so coincidentally, to hold a Mother’s Day event at his stores. 

From there she campaigned for the holiday to be added to the national calendar, organizing a letter writing campaign to newspapers and politicians. First towns and cities adopted the holiday, and then it became national. It falls on the second Sunday in May.

After that, it all went wrong. Her idea involved a single white carnation, a visit to Mom, and a church service, but the florists, candy companies, and greeting card companies saw dollar signs and the holiday became a money spinner. (My own mother called it Florist’s Day.)

Jarvis might’ve seen that coming but apparently didn’t. She was cagey enough to enlist both Wanamaker and the florist industry when she was campaigning for the holiday. 

By 1920, she was denouncing the day’s commercialization and urged people to stop buying Mother’s Day flowers, cards, and candy. Eventually, she was launching lawsuits against groups that used the name Mother’s Day. 

In 1948, she denounced the holiday completely and lobbied to have it taken off the U.S. holiday calendar.

It wasn’t.

The lawsuits ate through her money and she died broke. The floral and greetings card companies that she had campaigned against paid her bills.

If anyone’s campaigning to establish National Irony Day, her story’s a perfect fit.

And Father’s Day?

No insult to fathers intended here, but it’s easier to get sentimental about a group that’s ignored or treated badly the rest of the year. Then once a year, you show up with flowers and chocolate and, you know, that makes it all okay. 

Fathers, though? They just don’t have the same appeal. Although you can trace Father’s Day back to the middle ages too, if you want.

Of course you want. European Catholics celebrated Saint Joseph’s Day  on 19 March, and a tradition of celebrating fatherhood in general can be traced back to 1508–which doesn’t say that it began then, only that if it started earlier no one’s found the notes.

In 1966, the U.S. made it a national holiday. It’s also celebrated in the U.K. but not an official holiday.

39 thoughts on “Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day: a short history

    • And that also has an interesting history, starting (I should confirm this, but I haven’t) with left-wing politics and gradually turning into something nice but a bit vague.

      I think. In the US, it’s still only us wild-eyed radicals who’ve even heard on International Women’s Day.

      Liked by 1 person

      • A Catholic e-friend (I’m Protestant, btw) once asked for thoughts about the contrast between International Women’s Day and Lady Day, the week they were observed a few years ago. By way of a starting point he supplied snapshots of some sloppy-looking students at a demonstration and a lovely young Countess from some country where they still have such. I gave him verbal and visual snapshots of a whole range of other ways of doing womanhood, or ladyship in places where that’s still a separate thing. It was fun to write, anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I did a good 60 seconds of deep research on the internet and the two sources I found link it to the campaign for women’s rights and the vote–and to the socialist movement in general. Which, I’m sure, is why it’s basically a blank in the US.

          No countesses seem to have been involved, although history and the human race are weird enough that I can’t rule that–or anything else–out.


  1. Interestingly I think you are allowed every Sunday “off” during lent, the lent period is supposed to be 40 days and something to do with jesus and in the wilderness for 40 days and night, which is you start on ash Wednesday , takes you to the Sunday before easter, but lent goes on until maundy Thursday, which is 44 days and night later.
    I am not religious at all, but I used to give things up for lent (starting at about 10yrs) because someone once told me I wouldn’t be able to do it…
    So, as a pedant (even at 10), I wanted to get it right and badgered the religious people I knew until they told me stuff. I didn’t take the Sundays off because it seemed like cheating, but I did use it as a reason to be allowed to eat my birthday cake one year when my birthday was on maundy Thursday.

    I don’t give stuff up for lend now, because I am not religious and don’t feel the need to prove anything to people…

    Also I realise that my comment has gone off track and has nothing to do with mothers/mothering/day/sunday at all…

    I am leaving it as it is though :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hysterical history – on both sides of the pond! :D

    Mothering Sunday in the past has been a site of a tug of war between whether I spend the day with my daughter, or whether I have to give up that (in truth, preferred) option, in order to pander to my mother. But, equally, I don’t feel it’s OK to leave that task solely to my youngest sister as she wasn’t lucky enough to have children of her own. Honestly, I find it a day rife with emotional difficulties. This year my mother, myself and my daughter are spending this day together at some gardens. Sadly my sister cannot join us as she will be pandering to her in law. But, with luck, none of us will have to lift a finger in the kitchen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That does sound like a nightmare conjunction of family politics. When my mother called it Florist’s Day, she genuinely wasn’t putting any emotional weight on the day. When my brother and I showed up with our handmade cards, she was delighted. If we didn’t–well, it was just another day.

      Much simpler.


  3. What an interesting post, thank you Ellen.

    I live in Spain and I have just investigated why Mother’s Day falls on the first Sunday of May. It turns out that like Father’s Day, in past centuries the Spanish gave thanks for their mothers on the day of the Inmaculate Conception on 8th December (which is still a bank holiday today.) One historian affirms these celebrations can be traced back as far as 1330.

    However, since 1965 Spanish Mother’s day has been designated as the first Sunday in May. Apparently this day was chosen as it’s the day in the liturgical calendar dedicated to the VIrgin Mary. And also probably a lot easier to find flowers in May than in December !!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Everyday seems to be “a day” for something or someone (group) anymore. I’m waiting for the calendar to come out that contains only “National Whatever” days and no actual numerical dates.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It should not be lost on anyone that Constance Adelaide had to write her book promoting Mothering Sunday under a nom de plume that appeared to be a man’s. To make sure it got published and taken seriously..
    We loved the picture of the Spring flowers, but we really would have liked to see a link to the picture of the Virgin Mother wrestling with Satan.
    Definitely an interesting post. Something we never gave much thought to turns out to be quite interesting ! Thank you !

    Liked by 1 person

  6. For some reason, your post made me think of Snoopy (from the Peanuts comic strip) going back to the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm to try to see his mother on Mother’s Day. I guess it’s a mashup of both ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Our minds are magpies, collecting all sorts of odd stuff. And–okay, I don’t know how magpies’ minds work, so the comparison’s going to break down here, but our minds mash them all together in deeply odd ways. So that makes perfect sense to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You can still get simnel cake, although it’s mainly a thing in the North and the Midlands rather than the South, but it’s somehow now become associated with Easter rather than with Mothering Sunday. They don’t have 11 layers of cake, or you might be sick, but they have 11 little marzipan balls on the top, representing all the disciples except for Judas. You used to be able to get little ones which cost about £4 and were just a nice size, but for some annoying reason they don’t seem to be available any more, and all you can get for £4 is a slice of a big one, which isn’t the same!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day: a short history – Nelsapy

  9. There also is the Secretary’s day, or PA’s day, the market researcher day, un so weiter…
    I don’t think there is an “Underpaid underling” Day… Let’s pass a bill in Congress or the Commons…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day: a short history – TRUE CATHOLICS

Talk to me

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.