‘Every year readers write to the Telegraph pointing out that the mid-Sunday in Lent is not “Mother’s Day” but “Mothering Sunday”. Many blame America for introducing the former and making it commercial.
In America, of course, Mother’s Day is the second Sunday in May, as proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. It is marked on that day because it was the result of a campaign by Anna Jarvis (1864–1948), whose own mother had died on 9th May.
This is where the British tradition grows a little complicated. For the revival of Mothering Sunday must be attributed to Constance Smith (1878–1938), and she was inspired in 1913 by reading a newspaper report of Anna Jarvis’s campaign in America.
A big difference was that Constance Smith was a High Anglican who believed that “a day in praise of mothers” was fully expressed in the liturgy of the Church of England for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. This is not entirely the case, for the Collect on that Sunday traditionally asks God that “we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved”. That doesn’t sound specifically maternal.
It is only the traditional Lesson for the day that declares: “Jerusalem which is above is free; which is the mother of us all,” a day known by another title, Laetare Sunday, from the Introit, the first prayer of the Mass, which says: “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem: and be ye glad for her, all ye that delight in her: exult and sing for joy with her, all ye that in sadness mourn for her… and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolation.” A third title, Refreshment Sunday, evokes this imagery, and echoes the anticipatory joy of the day, which points towards the fulness of Easter joy in the new Jersualem, and this is expressed through the use of rose vestments, flowers, and the resumption of the organ at Mass.
Laetare Sunday’s connections with mothers came through it being the day to visit the mother church or cathedral. Some customs of the day outlived the Reformation. These included making a simnel cake and taking it to Mother. “I’ll to thee a Simnel bring, / Gainst thou go’st a Mothering,” wrote the celebratory poet Robert Herrick in the mid 17th century.
Constance Smith reconnected simnel cakes and what local customs of the day that survived with the honouring of mothers. Under the pen-name C. Penswick Smith she published a booklet The Revival of Mothering Sunday in 1920. Things snowballed, impelled by feelings consequent on the loss by many mothers of their sons in the First World War.
Constance Smith’s idea was not that Mothering Sunday should be limited to one Christian denomination, and its popularity spread through such open organisations as the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. “By 1938,” wrote Cordelia Moyse, the modern historian of the Mothers’ Union, “it was claimed that Mothering Sunday was celebrated in every parish in Britain and in every country of the Empire.”
Neither Constance Smith nor Anna Jarvis ever became mothers themselves. Anna Jarvis regretted the growing commercialisation of the day, even to disapproving of pre-printed Mother’s Day cards. “A printed card means nothing,” she said, “except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world”’.
Christopher Howse in The Daily Telegraph
Fr Lee Kenyon