If you were to step back one or two generations, you were likely to hear Mother’s Day called Mothering Sunday.
We thing of it as a centuries-old tradition for appreciating mothers.
However, that is not in fact who the mother was.
The ‘mother’ in question was originally not a family role or a biological description.
‘Mother’ was, in fact, the mother church, meaning the church in one’s town or village.
The tradition came about because of the large number of young people who worked away from home as domestic servants.
It was they who were allowed to make the journey home to their mother church on Mothering Sunday, the fourth church day of Lent.
The reason that domestic servants were allowed to go home on the fourth church day of Lent comes from the meaning of Lent.
In the Christian calendar, Lent is a forty-day period leading up to Easter. It is a time of introspection, repentance, self-denial, and of acts of kindness.
The word Lent itself comes from the Latin word ‘laetare’ meaning joyful.
It was therefore natural that the owners of big estates would feel obliged to give their domestic servants the day off to attend church in their home village.
They felt they were honouring Lent. By doing the kindness of granting the day off to their servants, their domestic servants were, in turn, expected to go home to their mother church in their own village.
The End Of All That
The First World War put an end to all that. It scythed through a young generation – domestic servants and masters alike.
Some of the most prestigious estates continue to exist, but over the next decades most of the grand estates were sliced up and sold off – and domestic service shrivelled away.
As the religious holiday faded, the joy of honouring mothers (real mothers, that is) grew.
So as Mothering Sunday faded, Mother’s Day grew stronger.
It was helped by the arrival of Mother’s Day in the USA, which was the invention of Anna Jarvis in 1908 specifically as a way of honouring mothers.
The day was so popular that in 1914 it was made a national holiday in the USA.
A Moveable Date
There is one vestige of the religious connection to Lent that continues in the UK, and that is that Mother’s Day is not on the same Sunday each year.
Last year in the UK, Mother’s Day was on the 11th of March, whereas this year (2019) it falls on the 31st of March.
The reason it moves from year to year is that Mothering Sunday follows the religious liturgical year.
While our secular year is based on the sun’s cycle, the religious liturgical year follows a combination of the sun’s cycle and the moon’s cycle. And a lunar calendar has only 354 days in a year.
Therefore the date of Easter moves forwards and backwards relative to the secular calendar. So, because Lent is connected to Easter, so Mothering Sunday (and now, Mother’s Day) moves from year to year.