HistoryTraditions & Celebrations

The Time Traveller’s Guide for Parents #4: Mothering Sunday

England, 18th century

“THE Word Lent in the Saxon Tongue signifies Spring, and because this Time of Fasting begins in the Spring, it therefore borrows its Name from the Season, and is called Lent.
THIS Fast is of such great Antiquity, that it seems to have been used from the Days of the Apostles. It is of forty Days Continuance, beginning at Ash-wednesday, and ending at Easter day, the Sundays excepted, which were always Festivals in Memory of our Savior’s Resurrection.”

On this, “The fourth SUNDAY in Lent… having now brought us to the Middle of the thorny Way of MotheringSundayRosesMortification, [the Church] cheers and comforts us with the End of our Journey and the Promise of Refreshment, lest we faint upon the Road…
The GOSPEL tells of Christ’s Relieving the five Thousand miraculously; intimating to us, that after the Hunger we suffer here, we shall be refreshed by our Lord…
THIS Sunday is also called Dominica de Panibus, the Sunday of the Loaves; or Dominica Refectionis, the Sunday of Refreshment: Because it does not treat of Mortification, but tells of the heavenly Jerusalem, and that Refreshment our Saviour will there give us.”

Daffodils in the grounds of Winchester CathedralSo we are instructed by Henry Bourne, Curate of All-Hallows, in Newcastle, upon Tyne. (1727) Bishop Wheatley, in his commentary on The Book of Common Prayer (1720) reminds us that our custom of “Midlenting” or “Mothering” is also quite ancient. The Ancient Greeks and Romans celebrated motherhood in spring festivals. Here in England, after the Norman Conquest, the practice grew of daughter churches sending offerings to the Mother Church of the Diocese one Sunday in Lent.

Jean-Etienne_Liotard_-_The_Chocolate_Girl_-_Google_Art_ProjectIt is only natural that in the last (seventeenth) century the tradition should be fully established of giving young people in domestic service this one (and only this one) day, Mid-Lent or Refreshment Sunday, to visit the parish church of their birth and family. The name Mothering Sunday is appropriate to this practice, although we must not forget that its true source lies in the Epistle for the day (from Galatians iv 21-31) which contains the words: Jerusalem, quae est Mater nostra. The opportunity for young people in service to visit both their spiritual and their natural mothers on this day has been recognized since the Reformation.

607px-André_Bouys_-_La_Récureuse_-_WGA03020Those of you who have children in service will undoubtedly be grateful for this one day in the year when you are given the opportunity to see them (as they will be grateful to see you). Whether you have a 10-year-old, who is in her first year as a maid, or a son who is a strapping youth, well established in service, it will be pleasant to hear how they are getting on. If the cook at the House where they have their position is kindly, they may be allowed to bring you some eggs or a Simnel cake. As Robert Herrick penned in 1648,

“I’ll to thee a Simnell bringEgg&Daffodil
‘Gainst thou go’st a mothering,
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give to me.”

Of course, you cannot eat the cake until Easter, because of the rules of Lent, but it is a sturdy SimnelCakecake that will last well until then. The rich plum pudding is covered by a stiff pastry crust, tied up in a cloth, and boiled for several hours. The outside is then brushed with egg and the whole baked, creating an outer layer that is “as hard as wood.”

The Lenten fast is relaxed a little on this day, however, so you may make special food for the young folk. The most popular treat is “furmity” or “frumenty,” made from hulled wheat boiled in milk and SpringVioletsmade more delicious by the luxurious addition of sugar and cinnamon. If you are in the North of England or Scotland, however, you may favor Carlings, pancakes made from steeped pease fried in butter and seasoned with pepper and salt.

DaffodilWindowSome employers are especially generous, and will give your child old clothing that they may bring as a gift to you. Even in the absence of this largess, however, both your home and your church will be brightened by the flowers that the young people pick as they walk to you, as your heart will be gladdened by their presence.flowerBasket

sources: {a note to modern readers – Some of these sources are extremely revealing of the intertwined nature of religion, the Enlightenment, and gender roles in the current world. They contain interesting information, but the reader is well advised to have a cushion ready on your escritoire to protect your pate when the inevitable head-desk moment arrives.}

BBC-Religions: Mothering Sunday.

G.D. Rosenthal, Mothering Sunday, Project Canterbury; London: Church Literature Association.

Gracespace, Mothering Sunday.

Mothering Sunday in the United Kingdom. Time and Date dot com.

Project Britain, Festivals and Celebrations: Mothering Sunday.

Robert Herrick. To Dianeme. A Ceremony in Gloucester.

The harmony and agreement of the collects, epistles, and gospels: as they stand in the Book of Common-Prayer, from the first Sunday in Advent, to the last Sunday after Trinity. … Proper to be bound up with the Common-Prayer, … By Henry Bourne, …
Bourne, Henry, 1696-1733.


for further reading:
How Mothering Sunday Became Mother’s Day.



featured image: A Crocus for Mother by Mark Seton.

Roses for Mothering Sunday by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Daffodils in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral by Neil Howard.

The Chocolate Girl by Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1744-5.

La Récureuse by André Bouys, 1737.

Eggcup and daffodils by teaforjoy.

simnel cake by David Jones

Spring Violets by Rachel Kramer.

Daffodil fresh window by Simon Webster.

flower basket

Cerys Gruffyydd

Cerys has gone through a genetics phase (undergrad years), a biological anthropology phase (grad school years) and a Pilates & yoga teaching phase (mum years). She lives with a scientist, a teenager and a rabbit. Her quasi-secret passion is historical costuming and she can’t look at people without imagining the era in which she would like to clothe them.

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