In my diary the fourth Sunday of Lent (this year Sunday 18 March 2012) is marked as ‘Mothering Sunday’. On the church calendar that Sunday is marked as ‘Mother’s Day’. Are Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day simply synonyms for the same day? As far as the card shops are concerned, they are one and the same day; but in origin they are very different.
Mothering Sunday has its origins in the pagan Roman festival of Hilaria, which was held during mid-March in honour of the mother goddess Cybele. When the Roman empire converted to Christianity, this festival was ‘christianized’; the festival of Hilaria became ‘Laetare’ Sunday, fixed on 4th Sunday of Lent, when instead of honouring Cybele people honoured the Virgin Mary as also ‘mother church’. In the 16th century, people marked ‘Laetare Sunday’ by returning to their mother church for a special service. Gradually ‘Laetare Sunday’ became known as Mothering Sunday. Mothering Sunday became a day when domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mother church, usually with their own mothers and other family members.
Mothers Day by contrast is an American invention and in the States and elsewhere is celebrated on the second Sunday of May. It has become a day for honouring mothers, and corresponds to Fathers Day. At one stage, however, it became a day when mothers were called to take responsibility for shaping society. Indeed, the ‘Mothers Day Proclamation, written by Julia Ward Howe in 1870 as a reaction to the carnage of the American Civil War, calls on women to work for peace:
Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God. In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”
Today for most people in the UK Mothering Sunday and Mothers Day have become synonymous. It has become a day when children send cards and give gifts to their mothers. Maybe, however, in addition to thanking God for our mothers, there is also something to be said for exploring the roots of both Mothering Sunday and Mothers Day. Mothering Sunday could, for instance, be a day when we invited back to the church all those who have brought their children for a service of dedication (or its equivalent) over the past few years. Mothers Day could, for instance, be a day when mothers were reminded of their opportunities to influence society by the way in which they shape the minds of the next generation. What do you think?