Mothering Sunday – Traditional Style

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Many people think that “Mother’s Day” in Ireland is the same as everywhere else. But actually, the Irish Mother’s Day comes from a completely different tradition. And it is held at a different time of the year than it is held in New World countries.

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Let’s get one thing straight. MOTHER’S DAY in its modern form is an American invention. It was first celebrated in 1908. A woman called Anna Jarvis held a memorial for her mother on the second Sunday in May, and tried to communicate with those around her just how special her mother was.

Jarvis’ mother, also called Anna, founded several Mothers’ Day Work Clubs. Their aim was to improve the health and sanitary conditions of less privileged people in their community. Anna Snr also looked after soldiers from both sides of the American civil war with neutrality. She treated wounds, fed, and clothed them. She was a powerhouse of helpfulness and compassion. Anna Jnr wanted her mother and indeed all mothers to be recognised for the hard work they did. So she started campaigning for  Mother’s Day to become an important day of recognition. By 1914, Anna Jarvis Jnr was successful, and it became an official day on the calendar of American life. The popularity of Mother’s Day soared, spreading like wildfire across the modern, western world.

But alas. By 1920, Anna Jarvis Jnr was horrified by what the day had become. She was repulsed by its already-commercial nature. She started her own company, which then became the legal owner of the phrases “Second Sunday in May” and “Mother’s Day.” Anna and her sister Ellsinore spent their family inheritance campaigning against what the holiday had become. But it went totally wrong for them: they both died in poverty and not many people were convinced by their argument.

According to her New York Times obituary, Jarvis died feeling bitter at what was initially a great achievement. She despaired that Mother’s Day was now a day for the greeting card industry. She said, “A printed card means nothing except that 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.” And the worst tragedy of all was that Anna Jnr, the woman who started the modern world’s version of Mother’s Day – was never a mother herself. She died alone and poor and the greeting card industry got a lot richer.

This sad story of Mother’s Day is different to the day dedicated to mothers here in Ireland. In fact, the day kept aside for this celebration, called Mothering Sunday was actually a nod to the Mother Church. Now of course, the two days have somewhat merged, but in Ireland much more of the original intention of the day has remained.

Mothering Sunday celebrated in Ireland falls on the 4th Sunday in Lent. (For those of you new to all things Lent, it is a Christian observance lasting for a about six weeks leading up to Easter Sunday. Christians prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance, and spiritual discipline. It is a time for reflection on Jesus Christ – his suffering and his sacrifice, his life, death, burial and resurrection.) For those who aren’t religious, carry on.

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This is Mrs Murphy, of Kilrane house in 1884. She would have had to go without her servants on Mothering Sunday. Oh the shock of it!

Mothering Sunday was actually a day to celebrate the Mother Church.  In Ireland, during the 16th Century, things weren’t the same as they are now. The church was a big deal. People were expected to go to their mother church on Mothering Sunday. This wasn’t the little stone shack down the road. No this was the Cathedral if possible, or failing that, the biggest church you could get to. The people attended a special service that was held on Laetare Sunday. Those that took part, which was pretty much everyone, were said to have gone “a-mothering.”

In later times, as society became more hierarchical and large tracts of people were forced into a life of being servants, Mothering Sunday became a welcome relief to the daily grind. Domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mother church, usually with their own mothers and other family members. It was often the only time that whole families could gather together, since on other days they had conflicting working hours.

The children who worked in different residences to their mothers would walk to their mother’s mother church. The children would pick wild flowers along the way to place in the church or give to their mothers. Eventually, the religious tradition evolved into the tradition of people giving gifts to their ACTUAL mothers.

By the 1920s, as servant life started to fade out, the custom of Mothering Sunday had lapsed somewhat in Ireland. However, it is often still called Mothering Sunday, and the date is kept firmly inside the Lent schedule, on the fourth Sunday in Lent. Concepts from the American version have blended with the original Irish version.

In Ireland, Mothering Sunday is also called Simnel Sunday. And why? Because it was a tradition to bake a Simnel cakes to celebrate the reuniting of families during the austerity of Lent. Because there is traditionally a relaxation of Lenten vows on this particular Sunday, in celebration of the fellowship of family and church, the name Refreshment Sunday is sometimes used too. And of course, the only way to spend the day with an Irish mammy is with some kind of cake!

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Sinmel cake was baked by young girls in domestic service, and they brought it home to their mothers, to be ‘mothered’ on this day. The employer provided the ingredients, then the girl baked the cake herself, to take home. Simnel cake is a light fruit cake with two layers of almond paste or marzipan, one in the middle and one on top that is toasted, and eaten during the Easter period. The meaning of the word “simnel” is unclear: there is a 1226 reference to “bread made into a simnel”, which is understood to mean the finest white bread, from the Latin simila – fine flour. Conventionally eleven marzipan balls are used to decorate the cake, with a story that the balls represent the twelve apostles, minus Judas. This tradition developed late in the Victorian era. The cake is made from white flour, sugar, butter, eggs, fragrant spices, dried fruits, zest and candied peel. Different towns have their own recipes and shapes of the Simnel cake.

Happy Mothering Sunday to Mammies everywhere!

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