As ever, the Romans got there first. Their version of Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day was the feast of Juno Lucina, the patroness of childbirth, which happened on the first day of the year, 1 March. Roman mothers wore their hair down and their tunics loose. Their husbands and daughters gave them gifts. It was also one of the few days when slaves got time off and were, for once, waited on. Obvious parallels, then.
Fast forward 1,500 years, and Mothering Sunday is a thing, but the origins aren’t entirely clear. Was it connected with the medieval custom whereby parish churches sent parishioners to their mother church or cathedral? Maybe: certainly by the 17th century the fourth Sunday in Lent (when the reading in church was ‘Jerusalem Mater Omnium’ – Jerusalem, mother of all) was when servant girls would return to their homes and their mother church and visit their own mothers.
As the social historian Ronald Hutton points out, the first evidence for this is a poem by Robert Herrick on ‘A ceremony in Gloucester’: ‘I’ll to thee a simnel bring/ gainst thou go a mothering’, a simnel being a cake made with fine flour. So there you go: for the authentic Mother’s Day present, get a simnel cake.
As usual, it was the Americans who took Mother’s Day to a whole new level. A redoubtable lady, Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia, inspired by her own mother, proposed in 1908 that the mothers of America should have their own special day, and in 1914, Congress voted to devote the second Sunday of May to mothers – it being a tough call then as now to vote against them.
Alas, Miss Jarvis was to repent of her work when she saw the way the day was ruthlessly commercialised, including the white carnations with which she marked it. She wrote: ‘A printed card means nothing except you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother – and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.’ That’s telling us. On the bright side, the US greetings card industry did pay Miss Jarvis’s nursing home fees – as well they might.
So Mother’s Day is a combination of medieval and early modern English custom, plus American filial sentiment and unvarnished commercialism, to which we owe the present festival. And it’s big business: £1.23 billion was spent on Mother’s Day in Britain in 2020, one way and another.
As well as being a festival that keeps the retail and hospitality sector going between Christmas and Easter, there may be another reason why Mother’s Day is such a thing. It may have originated in churches, but it’s now an occasion which is as near to universal appeal as you can get. Everyone has a mother. Indeed, you can have three in a surrogacy: the donor mother, the gestational mother and the woman (if it is a woman) who brings up baby. Even feminists seem fine with Mother’s Day, broadly interpreted, whereas in former communist countries it was International Woman’s Day, a more inclusive affair, when women got flowers.
Actually, it’s a miracle we can still celebrate Mothering Sunday given how contested language is these days. Parent-with-a-Womb-Day may be where we’re heading.