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British Culture, British Customs and British Traditions

Mothering Sunday aka Mother's Day

Mother's Day
Origins | Traditional Food | Traditional Gifts

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This section is in advanced English and is only intended to be a guide, not to be taken too seriously!

Mother's Day (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

I used to get into trouble by forgetting that Mother's Day is on a different day in Britain to the rest of Europe. Of course if you are in the UK you can't forget - card shops and TV adverts are all around to remind you.

The origins of Mothering Sunday

The tradition of a special day to honour your mother could go back to when the Romans honoured their goddess of motherhood in the Spring with the feast of Matronalia. Or, it could have emerged from the custom of mother worship in ancient Greece . Mother worship, which kept a festival to Cybele, a great mother of gods, and Rhea, the wife of Cronus, was held on March 15 to March 18 all around Asia Minor.

However, Mothering Sunday, otherwise known as Mother's Day, has been celebrated in Britain on the fourth Sunday in Lent since at least the 13th century. The custom possibly originated in the church festival of "Refreshment Sunday" when everyone was expected to revisit the church in which they were baptised, their "mother church", which of course meant they usually got to see there mums again!

It was a small step from honouring Mother Church to honouring our natural mothers and so in the mid-17th Century the custom grew of children paying special tribute to their mothers on this day. Mothering Sunday became more established by the 18th and 19th Centuries when many people worked away from home as servants to the rich and wealthy (especially girls in service such as cooks and maids), they would be allowed to go home for the day to visit their home church and so naturally they visited their families.

As a child I can remember going to church and being given flowers to give to my mother, which was great because I didn't get pocket money and so it saved lots of wildflowers from being picked on Saturday. ;-)

Traditional Food

The day also provided a welcome break from any self-imposed penance or fast being offered during Lent. The girls would often take a basket of goodies to their mothers that would include a Simnel cake, a very rich fruit cake, the name of which dates back to a special flour used by the Romans.

There are 3 main kinds of Simnel cake made in different parts of Britain today: a star-shaped Devizes Simnel, a flat spiced cake called Bury Simnel and the Shrewsbury Simnel with a layer of marzipan in the centre. Most bakeries in Britain will carry at least one type at this time of year.

In some households furmety was served - this is a porridge like dish made of whole wheat grains boiled in milk, then sugared and spiced. My mum used to make me this, but I was never paricularly keen - too much like porridge for my taste.

Traditional gifts for mothers

Nowadays the greeting card industry makes a fortune, and it is more usual for families to get together and take their mother out for a meal in a restaurant (you need to book a table about a year in advance to be sure of getting in anywhere decent on this day), or buy chocolates and flowers (the price of flowers goes through the roof too).

It is also common for the younger children to prepare their mother breakfast in bed, luckily the price of sliced bread and eggs, doesn't go up. However, the mother must eat it, no matter how badly burnt the toast, or how cold the tea!

British Culture