Mother’s Day vs. Mothering Sunday

Flowers from my family

Flowers from my family

Today is Mother’s Day in America, but it happened two months ago in Britain. Why are the dates different?

Max pointed me to the story of American Mother’s Day (you can read the full text here). In West Virginia in the 1850s, Ann Reeves Jarvis held small Mother’s Day work clubs to help improve sanitary conditions and reduce infant mortality. Ann’s death in 1905 prompted her daughter, Anna, to organise a number of events in churches to celebrate a mother’s efforts. They were held for the first time on the 10th of May, 1908. By 1914, their popularity had increased so much that President Woodrow Wilson officially set aside the second Sunday in May for the holiday.

Anna Jarvis was adamant that the purpose of the day was to spend time with your mother and thank her for all she did. Its purpose wasn’t to celebrate all mothers. It was to celebrate the best mother you’ve ever known: yours. Therefore, she stressed the singular (Mother’s Day) not the plural (Mothers’ Day). She hated the idea of it being a commercial money-spinner for florists, confectioners and card-makers, and even attacked Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise funds for charities.

Anna’s attempts to reform Mother’s Day continued until the 1940s. She died penniless in a sanitarium in a state of dementia.

Today, Americans spend an average of $162.94 on their mothers, totaling $19.9 billion. Restaurants are never busier than on Mother’s Day. 133 million cards are sold annually. It’s the second most popular day for gifts (after Christmas). Anna Jarvis would be horrified.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the concept of Mothering Sunday is centuries old. It’s the fourth Sunday in Lent, and began as a spring Sunday designated for people to visit their mother church (or main cathedral) rather than their local church. The travelling led to family reunions, and it was often the only day that whole families could gather together. The workers in a family didn’t get many days off (think Downton Abbey for people in service), and when they did, they weren’t necessarily all on the same day.

By the 1920s, the custom of Mothering Sunday had lapsed in Britain, but Constance Penswick-Smith, inspired by Anna Jarvis, wrote a book calling for its revival. Uptake of the idea was slow, but during WWII, American and Canadian soldiers fighting in Britain brought their Mother’s Day ideas with them. UK merchants saw a commercial opportunity and helped promote the idea.

The similarity of the names “Mothering Sunday” and “Mother’s Day” meant that it was easy for the two ideas to be celebrated on the same day. It may look as if the Christian holiday evolved into a secular celebration of mothers, but, in fact, they’re two separate celebrations.

My children are getting older, and the number of years remaining before my first-born goes to college seems alarmingly small. It’s made me think about what I’d like for Mother’s Day. I don’t need cards or gifts or lunch. I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than have breakfast in bed (crumbs – ewee!). I’ve never said “no” to sparkling wine. Flowers are always beautiful, and I’m delighted to receive them on any day, including Mother’s Day.

I suspect that, in years to come, what I’ll want for Mother’s Day is to spend time with my children. (Gabriella and Max, if you’re reading this, please try to spend Mother’s Day with me.)

And that, obviously, leads me on to think about what a failure I am as a daughter. I suspect my parents would like to see me more than they do. Yet, not only am I not spending Mother’s Day – or Father’s Day – with them, I’ve moved us all 6,000 miles away. And today I messed up the time difference and didn’t phone my mother before the end of her day.

Mum and Dad, I love you. Even when I don’t do the Special Day bits properly.

Max wrote a haiku and decorated it with flowers from the garden

Max wrote a haiku and decorated it with flowers from the garden

About Natalie Gotts

I've been a management consultant, a nutritional therapist, a Journey practitioner and a mother. I've sold ostriches in China and personal safety devices in Hong Kong. Whatever I've done, and wherever I've been, I've written about it.
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4 Responses to Mother’s Day vs. Mothering Sunday

  1. Nicky Howard says:

    Natalie thank you again…. but my eyes are prickling!

  2. Ian Gotts says:

    Here is John Oliver’s take on the poor deal mother’s get in the US. Funny and awful.

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