Sunday, 30 March 2014

Myths of Mothering Sunday

"Mid-Lent Sunday.-In the Stroud and Minchinhampton districts, servant girls still expect to go home for "Mothering Sunday"; they generally take a cake with them. Cakes are sold in the Stroud shops for the purpose; so, too, in Bristol. At Randwick, married children go home to visit their parents. Round Haresfield, veal is eaten on this day" (Cotswold Place-Lore and Customs, 1912, J. B. Partridge)

"At Bury, a day of great feasting and rejoicing is kept in mid-Lent, and goes by the name of Mothering Sunday. The people come from far and near to visit their friends at Bury, and are entertained with "Simnel Cakes" and ale.  The shop windows are full of a particular kind of tempting cake, well sugared on the top, and made in every size, and these are the Simnel Cakes" for which the day- is famous). (The Irish Monthly, Rosa Mulholland, 1882)

There's a line of though that I've heard in sermons in the past, although less of late, that Mothering Sunday has to more to do with "Mother Church" and the connection with Mothers is a late afterthought. It is perhaps an understandable reaction to the range of cards some of which say "Mother's Day" and some of which say "Mothering Sunday", and of course all the meals, presents etc, all related to mothers - the Mother Church doesn't get much of a mention.

But I think that's a very bad idea, as if the idea of "Mother Church" could somehow be divorced from the universal idea of motherhood.

It happens to some degree in America, where for some strange historical reason, they have a "Mother's Day" elsewhere in the calendar. That's because the traditions had become moribund, and when revived, the appointed date was fixed elsewhere on the 2nd Sunday in May. As Ronald Hutton describes in "Stations of the Sun":

"Miss Anna Jarvis was well-connected enough to turn her personal obsessions into public laws, and her tireless lobbying caused the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States to legislate in 1913 that the second Sunday in May should be set aside as a national day of remembrance of mothers. It seems to have been the arrival of American soldiers in the Second World War which introduced the concept to England, where the memory of the old Mothering Sunday was still strong enough for the two to become merged."

So where did the original festival come from? There are a good many false leads, just so stories, often without firm historical evidence. One popular one is that this was a day in which people returned to their mother church, but the evidence for that is not well grounded.

The Book of Common Prayer at this time has a special Epistle on maternal love.  Galatians 4:26 states that "Jerusalem which is above is free; which is Mother of us all." But there is no indication in Cranmer's work of any special festivity for this day. It may well be that the idea of returning to a mother church was derived from this verse, rather than any historical practice of the past.

In fact, how and when Mothering Sunday came into the Christian year is another matter. If there was a pre-Reformation celebration of that name, it has left no trace in the sources, which is certainly an oddity. One would expect some mention of it, but there is none.

The earliest historical reference seems to date from the 17th century, and Ronald Hutton notes that:

"The earliest certain reference to it is in the journal of the royalist officer Richard Symonds, for the year 1644: 'Every Mid-Lent Sunday is a great day at Worcester, when all the children and godchildren meet at the head and chief of the family and have a feast. They call it the Mothering-day'. "

"To Symonds, an Essex man, the tradition was unfamiliar, and he did not hear of it elsewhere on his marches across southern England. Probably earlier still is the poem by Robert Herrick, published in 1648 but written at any time in the previous twenty years:"

I'le to thee a Simnel bring,
'Gainst thou go'st a mothering,
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou'lt give me.

That is a reference to a Simnel cake, which as Bonnie Blackburn notes in "The Oxford Companion to the Year":

"It is an old custom in Shropshire and Herefordshire, and especially at Shrewsbury, to make during Lent and Easter, and also at Christmas, a sort of rich and expensive cakes, which are called Simnel Cakes. They are raised cakes, the crust of which is made of fine flour and water, with sufficient saffron to give it a deep yellow colour, and the interior is filled with the materials of a very rich plum-cake, with plenty of candied lemon peel, and other good things."

Hutton maps out the domain of counties in which a Mothering Sunday was observed, and it seems to have its origins in a fairly localised cluster of countries, and from thence to have spread out and become more universal as part of the Church of England's Christian calendar.

He notes the context of the festival seems more to have originated in familial than religious practices. It was the occasion when children who had gone to work as apprentices and domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mothers and families. As he notes:

"Mid-Lent would have been an excellent time for families to remeet and inform themselves upon each other's needs, when the conditions for travel were improving after winter and want would be greatest. Widowed mothers would have been especially vulnerable. In addition a cue may have been given by the epistle for that Sunday recommended in the Anglican Prayer Book: ' Jerusalem Mater Omnium'. "

This goes back to the medieval name for the Sunday of "Laetare Sunday" from the same epistle. But Hutton warns against reading too much back into the sources.  Although it had the name "Laetare Sunday" and seems to have been a day off the rigours of Lent, it went by many different names - Refreshment Sunday, Mid-Lent Sunday (in French mi-carême), and Rose Sunday.

One of the earliest liturgical notices of the extra day of Lent such as Laetare Sunday" occurs in the special Gospels assigned to them in a Toulon manuscript of 714. This notes that this was a special festival in Lent in which flowers were permitted, the organ could be played at the Divine Service and Vespers; rose-coloured vestments were allowed instead of purple. There is no mention of motherhood or processions!

Post-reformation, we have a sermon by Luther on the Loaves and Fishes (the Gospel reading) which emphasised the name "Refreshment Sunday". Interestingly the Lutheran church kept the tradition of rose-coloured or pink vestments.

As Hutton concludes:

"A long-established argument, that the custom also derived from a medieval rite whereby parish congregations processed to their 'mother church' (the cathedral of their diocese) upon this day, remains unproven."

But unproven, it has nevertheless become the religious narrative of choice, despite the lack of sources to support it; it is stated as a fact. For example, one website says:

"Centuries ago it was considered important for people to return to their home or "mother" church at least once a year. So each year, in the middle of Lent, everyone would visit their "mother" church, or the main church or cathedral of the area."

And another notes:

"A popular notion is that Mothering Sunday was an occasion when, in the 18th and 19th centuries, domestic servants were given the day off to visit their mothers and the family home. What is far more likely is that the gathering of families on Mothering Sunday was due to the older custom of going together to the Mother Church. ""

These are always vague pieces of folk-lore, with no sources, occasionally we are told "historians say", but lack anything substantive. Unfortunately such is the power of transmission of unverified ideas that this is taken as factual. It is at least as likely that the reverse is the case, and the domestic customs became entwined with the Lent and given religious overtones in a story back projection. What went simply under the term "Mid Lent Sunday" became "Mothering Sunday". Indeed, writing in Folklore (1961), Violet Alford went so far as to say that "Churches have annexed the day".

By way of demonstration of the variety of imaginative speculation, another website comes up with an explanation which is at least as plausible:

"England's Mother's Day observance goes back to the 13th century when "Mothering Sunday" was observed on the fourth Sunday of Lent (because it was originally for Mary, mother of Christ)."

Given the way in which the cult of Mary was more or less extinguished after the Reformation, this is at least as likely as tales about processions.

The situation is complicated further, because the Mothering Sunday traditions were moribund and fading fast when revived in America, because Anna Jarvis had a residual folk memory of the tradition in England. But when it returned to England, it focused on the existing festival day, and strengthened a religious narrative. As Christopher Howse explained in "The Telegraph":

"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."

As the Oxford Dictionary of Nation biography notes:" Smith recorded disappearing folk customs and unusual local church traditions and recipes connected with the day, such as the Simnel cakes made in Shrewsbury, Bury, and Devizes and the wafer cakes baked in Chilbolton, Hampshire."

But it is in the revival that it took on its very modern form. As Christopher Howse notes:

"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 of Lent. This is not entirely the case, for the Collect on that Sunday 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."

"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 Girls 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."

Just as Victorians such as Dickens reinvented Christmas and gave us many of the trappings that we have today, it seems likely that Mothering Sunday, as a Christian festival, owes much to the religiosity of Constance Smith. That's not to say that is a bad thing. It is good to bless mothers. But the notion that it has nothing to do primarily with mothers fits badly with the historical evidence; if anything, it is the Christian reinvention which is more modern.

Having finished this, I was gratified to read Liz Lambotte, Youth Worker at St Aubin Methodist Church, writing in the JEP and getting the history spot on about the 17th century origins. She also has this to say, which I think is also extremely good:

"Mothering Sunday provides us with a wonderful opportunity to give thanks to all the women who have cared for us, not just those who have brought us into the world, but those women who love us and have nurtured us along our journey, those who have stood up for us, believed in us and showed compassion."

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