Mothering Sunday and Mother's Day: Background information when reading Mothering Sunday

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Mothering Sunday

A Romance

by Graham Swift

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift X
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2016, 192 pages
    Jan 2017, 192 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick
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About this Book

Mothering Sunday and Mother's Day

This article relates to Mothering Sunday

Print Review

In the UK, "Mothering Sunday" – the central event in Graham Swift's novel of the same name – dates back to at least the 16th century when Christians would go "a mothering" to visit their "mother church" once a year, where they had been baptized. For some, this would also be the day of the year when mothers were united with their children — not just adult offspring but even those as young as ten who might be apprenticed or in service.

A Simnel cake Held on the fourth Sunday of Lent, Mothering Sunday was also known as Refreshment Sunday as the dietary restrictions of Lent were somewhat relaxed on that day (some say in honor of the Feeding of the Five Thousand). Traditionally, a Simnel cake was baked — a fruit cake with a layer of marzipan decorated with 11 marzipan balls representing the 11 apostles (Judas excluded).

Although on record since the 16th century, it's believed that Mothering Sunday dates back much earlier, and was probably adapted from a Roman festival of spring celebrating Cybele the "Great Mother" goddess.

In the USA, on the other hand, Mother's Day has its roots in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War when Julia Ward Howe wrote a call for peace and disarmament known as the Mother's Day Proclamation.

But if Mother's Day in the US is the newer tradition, why might you ask is it only the UK, Ireland and Nigeria who still hold to the fourth Sunday of Lent as Mother's Day, while the majority of other countries either follow the US and celebrate on the second Sunday in May, or on another date that has meaning for them?

The answer is yet another legacy of the World Wars. By the 20th century it seems that Mothering Sunday had lapsed in much of Europe, and was never introduced to America, as the Puritans thought poorly of many festivals particularly those with pagan roots. Then, inspired by the American Mother's Day movement, a revival took place in some parts of Europe — mostly benignly but with sinister overtones in Germany where the Nazi government co-opted Mother's Day as part of their propaganda drive to push women to produce large quantities of children to serve the Fatherland.

But it seems it was the American and Canadian soldiers serving in Europe during World War I, but particularly during World War II, who put the event firmly back on the calendar. Presumably much of Europe had by that time lost the link to the original date and happily embraced whatever day suited their calendars. Today, about 140 countries celebrate Mother's Day, about half of them at the same time as the USA, and just three on the "traditional" fourth Sunday of Lent.

Picture of SImnel cake by Edward

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

Article by James Broderick

This "beyond the book article" relates to Mothering Sunday. It originally ran in June 2016 and has been updated for the January 2017 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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