Turning Year: Traditions and customs of Mothering-day

Primroses - a typical Mothering-day gift.
Primroses - a typical Mothering-day gift.
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Supposedly, March is the time when winter starts packing its bags. Well, we’ll see – the month of many weathers is no stranger to cold snaps and frosts.

When Britain’s wealth came from agriculture – that’s for most of our history – clues to the peak growing months were keenly sought in spring. Our forebears observed that a decent summer was heralded by a dry, cold March: “A wet March makes a sad harvest,” and “March damp and warm does farmers much harm,” warn of poor weather in what are now the peak holiday months.

Gardeners should heed this reliable old saying: “A mist in March is a frost in May.” Unexpected frosts in May are notorious for nipping tender plants and fruit blossom, so note any misty days this month and you’ll know whether to invest in some horticultural fleece.

On the bright side, March brings the spring equinox. And if it should turn out grey and windy, folklore has a few words of comfort: “Better to be bitten by a snake, than to feel the sun in March.”

Mothering-day

Mother’s Day as we know it began in the USA in 1914. Two years later some well-known British figures suggested we should celebrate it here, and sentiments stirred by the First Word War helped the campaign along. A date in early August was chosen. Yet the custom didn’t last – by the 1920s we’d given up on Mother’s Day.

Having a day dedicated to mothers wasn’t a new idea. Since the 17th century, young people who worked and lived away from home had been allowed to return on Mothering-day, the fourth Sunday in Lent.

“Living in” with their employer was common practice for apprentices, servants and farm workers, who began work at a young age. Although some were little more than children, they could live miles from their families with few days off. The chance to go home, even for a day, was eagerly anticipated.

The highlight of Mothering-day was a meal with all the family, and every region had its speciality. Northern families enjoyed fig pie made with currants, syrup and spices, washed down with spiced ale. Popular treats were egg custard, and white sugar candies flavoured with caraway. More economical was frumenty, made by simmering wheat grains that had been soaked in milk and cinnamon. This was so popular that the day came to be known as Frumenty Sunday.

Although we serve it at Easter now, simnel cake has a long association with Mothering-day. In 1648 it was mentioned in a poem by Robert Herrick: “I’ll to thee a simnel bring, ‘gainst thou go a-mothering.” Herrick was describing a custom in the Severn valley, where Mothering-day is likely to have originated.

Mothering-day began to die out in the 1930s. It lingered long enough to smooth the re-introduction of Mother’s Day, after the Second World War. For a while the two customs existed side by side. Mothering-day, the simpler and more modest of the two, enjoyed a revival in the Church of England where it is still celebrated.

Curiously, Mothering-day customs never caught on in parts of Yorkshire and the northeast, where people preferred to celebrate Carling Sunday instead – more about that next week.