I am English, my children are English, so why this fixation on the American upstart Mothers’ Day – rather than our ancient tradition of Mothering Sunday?
The memory of homage paid to mothers goes back into the mists of time in this country. Some say that its origins can be found in the Roman Spring festival honouring their Mother Goddess Cybele. It certainly occurs right in the beginning of spring, and there are a number of similar celebrations in honour of a number of similar spring goddesses throughout the world – (in fact Easter is a direct descendent of the Saxon Fertility Goddess Eostra),
But whatever the ancient origins were, with the spread of Christianity many of the pagan festivals were adopted and amended for the new culture and beliefs.
And so we see a new tradition developing, of pious Christians wending their way back to visit their mother church on this day in order to attend the Laetare Sunday Mass honouring the Virgin Mary. After the reformation a similar service was continued; bolstered by the epistle listed for the fourth Sunday in Lent, “Jerusalem which is above is free, which is Mother to us all” - Galatians 4.26.
The activities that grew out of this religious requirement also grew out of the conditions of the day. Many young people were hired out as farm workers or domestic servants, and their time was strictly limited. Deeming this day a holy-day with a duty to return to their home or ‘mother’ church also meant that they had the opportunity to visit their earthly mothers as well.
And like all children, they knew the value of bringing with them a small present for Mum!
Because so many young girls were in service it became traditional to bake the Simnel cake (simila being the Latin word meaning fine, wheaten flour from which it is made) with its rich topping of baked marzipan and eleven balls depicting the loyal apostles of Christ.
However, there may be an older version. My grandmother, raised in rural Yorkshire, always put twelve around the edges and one in the centre. This she told me was for the twelve months in a year- plus the one in the centre to remind us of who created us all. She was a Yorkshire Methodist and not given to flights of fancy.
However, my great-aunt – a recognised expert on English farm traditions – and (say it softly) suspected of being a witch, dismissed such claims of religious fervor. They were, she confidently stated, twelve around the edges to echo the months in the year – plus one in the centre for the mother goddess who ruled the turning of the wheel – and all together they made thirteen which added up to the yearly lunar cycle.
I was an idealistic child and liked my aunt. I believed accordingly.
Actually it matters not where it came from, what matters now is that we do not forget that our tradition of Mothering Sunday is much different from the American imposed one of making the shopkeepers richer in May.
Girls trotting home with Simnel cakes lodged in their baskets were joined by farm lads with bunches of violets clutched in their large hands. Small gifts, from the heart for mothers they had left behind. They would later return to their place of work with their mother’s blessing.
Robert Herrick was very familiar with the tradition of Mothering Sunday and of the Simnel cake.
I’ll to thee a Simnel bring
‘gainst thou goes a Mothering;
so that, when she blesseth thee
Half that blessing thou’lt give to me.
– Herrick : Hesperides 1647
And surely I cannot be the only one who remembers when flower sellers gathered the violets and bunched them up for children to give to mothers at only 6d a bunch?
So I’m peeved, because I have just phoned my son, and advised him of the long tradition of Mothering Sunday; – he tells me I’ll get my card in May.
But after about a thirty minute diatribe on the real traditions of Mothering Sunday he has promised to go out and look for a bunch of violets; however I am not hopeful!
And as the possibilities of getting the daughter to bake a Simnel cake are virtually non-existent I’m off to sulk.
However, I have put in my orders for next year; and they have promised ‘to goest a Mothering’ like the best of them.
Which is one small step in returning to our English heritage in our house again!!
Have YOU phoned your Mother yet?????