In Ireland and the UK, Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day is always on the fourth Sunday of Lent. In the USA and other countries, it is celebrated on the second Sunday in May. Whenever you honor the matriarch of your family, the origins and customs of her special day are fascinating.
The earliest Mother’s Day celebrations can be traced back to the spring festivities of ancient Greece, in honour of Rhea, the Mother of the Gods. In Rome, the most significant Mother’s Day festival was dedicated to the worship of Cybele, another mother goddess. Ceremonies in her honour began some 250 years before Christ was born. This Roman religious celebration, known as Hilaria, lasted for three days – from March 15 to 18.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, mother’s day celebrations were held on the fourth Sunday in Lent – Laetare Sunday or mid-Lent Sunday – and they were adapted to honor the Virgin Mary and also the “Mother Church.” Custom began to dictate that a person visit the church of his/her baptism on this day and people attended the mother church of their parish, laden with offerings.
Eventually, the custom of making donations to one’s Mother Church expanded to include honoring one’s own mother; young people, such as servants and apprentices, were given the day off to visit their mothers and take gifts of food, which sometimes included a special “mothering cake.” Often, this would be a very rich fruit-laden concoction called a simnel cake. They would also bring her bouquets of spring flowers which were blessed in church first. And, it was customary for sons and daughters to take on the mother’s chores.
By 1935, the custom of keeping Mothering Sunday had lapsed in Europe, but was revived again after World War II. It came as a complete surprise to this writer to learn that its revival was brought about through the influence of American servicemen stationed overseas. In honoring their mothers on the 2nd Sunday in May, which had been instituted in the USA in 1907, they brought back for the people of Ireland, Great Britain and other European countries, the centuries old tradition of paying homage to mothers, but, as in the old days, Ireland and her geographic neighbors reverted back to keeping it on the 4th Sunday in Lent.
This difference in dates caused me a lot of grief when I first came to the United States. Many a letter from my dad chided me for forgetting ‘mam’s day. Eventually, he caught on and would let me know ahead of time when it was. Of course, there were no cards available in the shops here, but I later learned to buy several at a time.
It doesn’t take much to please a mother – mine was just so happy to hear from me, I could have sent a greeting on fly paper! I can also still remember the gifts we used to give her when I was just a girl – and her predictable reaction: To the inevitable dark blue bottle of Evening in Paris – “ye can’t have too many of these.” Or, if the resources would allow, perhaps a set of Yardley Soaps: “And won’t I be cleaner than the Queen herself.” Then, many years later, when she’d be given something nice to wear: “A fine buckle is a great addition to an old shoe.”
For the most part, she was happiest when she could put her feet up and let my dad and my brothers bustle about the house – and make a horrible mess of her kitchen. From the burned eggs on cold toast for breakfast to a very unbalanced dinner of sausages and mash (mashed potatoes) followed by a Lyons Swiss Roll (jelly roll spongecake) for dessert, we did our best to make her day off as nice as we could.