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How a break in fasting evolved into a celebration of motherhood

A child holds out a bouquet of daffodils

Sunday 19th March is Mothering Sunday in the UK and Ireland – these days it’s most likely to be observed as ‘Mothers’ Day’, a celebration of maternal love across most of the Western world. But was it always that way? John Wolffe, Professor of Religious History at The Open University, discusses how Mothering Sunday has undergone a cultural and social makeover throughout the centuries…

“Mothering Sunday, celebrated this year on 19 March, brings together Christian and secular traditions. The date changes each year in line with the Christian calendar to coincide with the fourth Sunday in Lent, the period of fasting and heightened devotional practice that leads up to Good Friday and Easter Day.

Traditionally this Sunday at the mid-point of Lent was a day of feasting and relaxation from the rigours of fasting before they were renewed in the final three weeks leading up to Easter. In England, the foods particularly associated with the day were frumenty, a kind of porridge with currants and spices, and simnel cake which we now associate more closely with Easter. In French-speaking countries mid-lent - Mi-Carême, as it is known, - is also an occasion for carnivals.

Where does the ‘Mother’ come in?

“The origins of the wording “Mothering Sunday” are unclear, and while it is often thought that this was an occasion for people to visit their ‘mother’ church – that is where they were baptised or the main church in the district – evidence for this practice is lacking.

In secular tradition Mothering Sunday, especially in the west of England, was an occasion for visiting mothers and family reunions. According to a correspondent writing in The Times in 1914, in reaction to news of the creation of Mothers’ Day as an official holiday in the United States, it was a tradition that had been kept ‘since we were children, as our fathers and their fathers’ fathers before them had done’.

More recently the British and Irish Mothering Sunday has been influenced by the American holiday (which is actually celebrated on the second Sunday in May every year) and is accompanied by the commercialised promotion of gifts for mothers. Indeed, outside church circles ‘Mothers’ Day’ is now the more familiar term.

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