A Brief History of Mothering Sunday

So is it Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day? And how did this annual celebration of maternity actually begin, anyway?

Mother's Day Facts

Everyone celebrates Mother's Day in their own way, from kids preparing mum a much-deserved breakfast in bed, to older children treating their mother to a quintessentially British afternoon tea. But while we see it as a universally beloved day of affection and celebration, Mothering Sunday isn't technically what you think it is. It's not even the same thing as Mother's Day.


Mothering Sunday began as an explicitly religious event of the 16th Century, with no connection to mothers at all. The word "mothering" referred to the "mother church", which is to say the main church or cathedral of the region. It became a tradition that, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, people would return to their mother church for a special service. This pilgrimage was apparently known as "going a-mothering", and became something of a holiday event, with domestic servants traditionally given the day off to visit their own families as well as their mother church.

Baking Simnel cake is one of the tastiest traditions of Mothering Sunday.

Baking Simnel cake is one of the tastiest traditions of Mothering Sunday.


One of the tastiest traditions of Mothering Sunday was the baking of Simnel cake. Often regarded as a purely Easter-related confection, this rich fruit cake is also tied to Mothering Sunday, as a bit of indulgence to make up for the general austerity of Lent (and a nice home-baked present to take home to your mother). Consisting of layers of cake and marzipan, a traditional Simnel cake also reflects the religious overtones of the event by being adorned with 11 balls of marzipan, representing all the disciples of Jesus, minus Judas.


Despite its long existence in British culture, Mothering Sunday eventually fell out of fashion at the dawn of the 20th Century. This is where a lady named Constance Penswick-Smith enters the picture. The daughter of a vicar, she thought the loss of Mothering Sunday was a great shame, and worked hard to rekindle interest, even writing a book whose title clearly laid out her ambition - it was called The Revival of Mothering Sunday. As if that wasn't enough, she also founded the Society for the Observance of Mothering Sunday. Her determination paid off, and the fading festival was restored to the culture of the country, only with much more of a focus on celebrating motherhood. And this was due to an American influence...


So if our event is properly called Mothering Sunday, what is "Mother's Day"? Technically speaking it's a completely unrelated American event, invented by a woman called Anna Jarvis in 1908. Her initial inspiration was a desire to honour her own mother, who had been a militant peace activist during the US Civil War. Anna Jarvis's growing ambition to create a formal "Mother's Day" for all American mothers was literally laughed out of the room at first, with officials jokingly saying that it might lead to a "Mother-in-Law's Day". Anna Jarvis wasn't easily put off, though, and in 1914 US President Woodrow Wilson officially signed Mother's Day into existence.


It was Anna Jarvis who inspired our own Constance Penswick-Smith to revive the more religiously-flavoured Mothering Sunday over here, although the two separate events have since become conflated in most people's minds. Interestingly, Anna Jarvis herself was the first person to condemn the growing commercialisation of Mother's Day, and started organising boycotts of the event she herself created. One of her anti-Mother's Day protests even led to her arrest for disturbing the peace, and she was particularly appalled by ready-made Mother's Day cards, saying "A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world." Buying chocolates was a no-no as well. "You take a box to Mother," she scoffed, "and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment!"