Mother's Day: How 'going a-mothering' turned into a celebration of mums far and wide

Emily Allen
How did Laetare Sunday turn into a day to honour motherhood? - E+

As the days become longer and (slightly) warmer, the first calendar event of spring is around the corner: Mother's Day.

While we now associate the day with making breakfast in bed for our mums, it has not always been intrinsically linked to honouring motherhood. From tradition behind the day to its americanisation, here is the story behind Mother's Day.

When is Mother's Day?

This year, Mother's Day – also known as Mothering Sunday – falls on Sunday, March 11.

The day is always on the fourth Sunday of Lent, exactly three weeks before Easter Sunday and usually in the second half of March or early April.

The day is a celebration of mothers and the maternal bond; traditionally children give flowers, presents and cards to their mothers, as well as to other maternal figures such as grandmothers, stepmothers and mothers-in-law.

mothers day counter

When did Mothering Sunday begin?

In the UK, the day has long been associated with mothers and family. For centuries, it was custom for people to return home to their families and their ‘mother’ church on Laetare Sunday – the middle of Lent. Those who did so were said to have gone ‘a-mothering’.

The day often turned into a family reunion and a chance for children working away from home – often young domestic servants - to spend time with their mothers. Many used to pick flowers from the verges along the way to leave in the church or hand to their mothers when they got home.

But it was American social activist Anna Jarvis (1864-1948) from Philadelphia who lobbied the government for an official day to honour mothers in the US, and is regarded as the "Mother of Mother's Day". She dedicated her life to the cause after swearing she would do so after her mother's death, which fell on May 9.

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the second Sunday in May to be 'Mother's Day', to honour the day Anna Jarvis' mother died. 

However, over the years Jarvis became increasingly concerned at the commercialisation of the day, saying "I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit." She also didn't like the selling of flowers and the use of greetings cards which she described as "a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write".

The day took off in Britain when vicar's daughter Constance Smith was inspired by a 1913 newspaper report of Jarvis' campaign and began a push for the day to be officially marked in England.

Smith, of Coddington, Nottinghamshire, founded the Mothering Sunday Movement and even wrote a booklet The Revival of Mothering Sunday in 1920. Interestingly, neither Smith nor Jarvis became mothers themselves.

By 1938 Mothering Sunday had become a popular celebration with Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and various parishes across Britain marking the day and communities adopting the imported traditions of American and Canadian soldiers during the war.

By the 1950s it was being celebrated throughout Britain and businesses realised the commercial opportunities, leading to the card- and flower-heavy version of the day we celebrate today.

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Mother’s Day traditions

Simnel cakes are associated with Mother’s Day. During Lent, people did not eat sweet foods, rich foods or meat. However, the fast was lifted slightly on Mothering Sunday and many people prepared a Simnel cake to eat with their family on this day.

The poet Robert Herrick drew the connection between the two as early as the 17th century, when he wrote:

I’ll to thee a Simnel bring,
Gainst thou go’st a Mothering

A Simnel cake is a light fruit cake covered with a layer of marzipan and with a layer of marzipan baked into the middle of the cake. Traditionally, Simnel cakes are decorated with 11 or 12 balls of marzipan, representing the 11 disciples and, sometimes, Jesus Christ.

One legend says that the cake was named after Lambert Simnel who worked in the kitchens of Henry VII of England sometime around the year 1500.

How to make simnel cake

Want to surprise your mum with a simnel cake this year? Read Paul Hollywood's recipe, bursting with cinnamon, cherries and apricot jam.

Paul Hollywood's simnel cake

Mothering Sunday, Mother’s Day or Mothers' Day?

When you say 'Mother’s Day' you're actually referring to the American version, although the term is widely used in Britain too. In the US, Mother's Day falls on Sunday, May 13 this year. 

Armchair linguists tend to disagree on whether in Mother's Day should come before or after the 's'. Those who argue the apostrophe should fall after the 's' say the day is a celebration of all mothers and the punctuation should reflect that. 

However Anna Jarvis trademarked the term 'Mother's Day' – with the apostrophe before the 's' – in 1912, saying the word should 'be a singular possessive, for each family to honor its own mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world'.

President Woodrow Wilson used this spelling when he announced the day in 1914; this means the correct version of the word is spelled with the apostrophe before the 's'.

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