MOTHER’S DAY IN GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SIMNEL CAKE

Today is Mother’s Day in Great Britain. Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday is celebrated in many countries but often it is in May. There are special reasons why it is celebrated on the fourth Sunday in lent here in Britain. There is also a unique tradition associated with it of the Simnel Cake, a special Easter treat.

The history of Mother’s Day can be traced back to pagan traditions and celebrations in honour of Rhea the mother of the gods which took place in ancient Greece. During the 1600s, the early Christians in England set aside a day to honour Mary, the mother of Jesus on the fourth Sunday in lent. The church later ordered, that the holiday be expanded to include all mothers known as Mothering Sunday. Another Christian significance of Mothering Sunday is rarely mentioned today but originally the passage appointed to be read in churches today was Galatians 4 :21-31 which contains the verse “But the Jerusalem which is above is free, which is mother of us all’. The full Bible passage talks about Abraham who has two sons Ishmael with Hagar and Isaac with Sarah who symbolically represent two covenants, the Old Testament covenant brought to the jews and the New Testament one which is the fulfilment of the old covenant brought to us through Christ’s death and resurrection and which is for all people. This new covenant is symbolised by the new Jerusalem in the Bible passage above described as our mother.

The tradition in England came to be that on the middle Sunday in Lent those working away from home would return to their mother church in their home town. Sometimes children left home to work in those days as young as 10 years old. It is thought that this tradition of returning to the mother Church is the origins of the tradition of children, particularly those working as domestic servants being given this Sunday off in the middle of lent to visit their mother and family. As they walked home, along country lanes, they would pick wild flowers particularly violets, usually in flower at that time of year to give to their mother. This is the reason why children in Sunday schools across Britian today will present small poses of flowers to their mothers as part of the church service. Later this time off was granted not just to children but to all maids and servants and to apprentices too.

The origins of the Simnel cake , this special easter cake which is unique to England and Ireland, are that, from the 18th Century, daughters would bake a fruit cake with marzipan on the top to take to their mother on Mothering Sunday, the cake would be kept until Easter day at then end of Lent and eaten as part of that days’ celebrations. Over time the tradition came to be to bake a fruit cake and put eleven marzipan balls on the top symbolising the 11 apostles, Judas being omitted as he betrayed Jesus. The name Simnel probably comes from simila which referred to the fine wheat flour used to make the original cakes which were initially more like an enriched, yeast bread. Simnel cakes are still enjoyed in British homes on Easter day today although these days they are not often baked by daughters! Mothers however are celebrated on Mothering Sunday in church and everywhere, they are taken out to lunch and given cards, flowers and other gifts.

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