Project Canterbury

Mothering Sunday
by G.D. Rosenthal

London: Church Literature Association, no date.


I'll to thee a Simnell bring
'Gainst thou go'st a-mothering,
So that when she blesses thee
Half that blessing thou'lt give me.

SO wrote Robert Herrick in a song addressed to Diamene in "A Ceremonie in Gloucester." Herrick lived in the seventeenth century, and the custom of giving young people in service a holiday on Mid-Lent Sunday, to enable them to visit their parents, was then well-nigh universal. Bishop Wheatley in a commentary on the Book of Common Prayer, published in 1720, tells us that the custom which he calls "Midlenting" or "Mothering" was even then a very ancient one. He thinks that its origin is to be found in the Epistle and Gospel appointed for Mid-Lent Sunday, the Epistle speaking of Jerusalem as the Mother of us all, and the Gospel narrating the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand in the wilderness.

This annual return visit, signalized as tradition demanded it should be by gifts on both sides, must have acted as a powerful influence to strengthen and renew the bonds of family love. The young folk took as a present for their parents a small cake known as a Simnel. The parents provided "furmity" or "frumenty," a dish of hulled wheat boiled in milk, and seasoned with cinnamon and sugar. In the North of England and in Scotland, however, the plat du jour was steeped pease, fried in butter, with pepper and salt. These pancakes were called Carlings, and Carling Sunday became the local name for the day.

Tid, Mid, and Misera,
Carling, Palm, and Paste-egg Day,

remains in the North of England as an enumeration of Sundays in Lent and of Easter Day, the first three terms being probably taken from names in the ancient service-books for the respective days.


In shape the Simnel cake resembled a pork pie, but in materials it was a rich plum pudding inside a stiff and hard pastry crust. Simnels were made up very stiff, tied up in a cloth and boiled for several hours, after which they were brushed over with egg and then baked. When ready for the table, the crust was as hard as if made of wood. This circumstance has given rise to various stories of the manner in which they have at times been treated by persons to whom they were sent as a present, and who had never seen them before: one ordering the Simnel to be boiled to soften it, and another taking hers for a footstool! In old times they were often stamped with the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The word Simnel, I regret to say, is derived from the Latin Similia, meaning wheat-flour. My regret is due to the fact that the legendary derivations are much quainter and more delightful. Some assert that the father of Lambert Simnel, the pretender to the throne of Henry VII., was a baker, and in consequence of the celebrity he gained by the acts of his son, his cakes have retained his name. Here is an even more curious legend which has been handed on from time immemorial in Shropshire villages. I give it as far as possible in the words of a very old Salop lady, who was told it when a little girl by her grandmother.

Long ago, there lived an honest old Shropshire couple. I do not know their surnames, but their Christian names were Simon and Nelly. It was the custom at Easter to gather their children about them and thus for the whole family to meet together once a year at the old homestead. The fasting time of Lent was just ending, but they still had left some of the unleavened dough which had been prepared on Shrove Tuesday to make bread during the forty fasting days. Nelly was a very frugal housewife, and it grieved her to waste anything. So she suggested to her husband that they should use the remains of the Lenten dough to make a cake to regale the assembled family. Simon readily agreed to the proposal, but, quoth he: "Lenten dough is ill-fare for feasting. Were it not well to put within it what is left of the Christmas plum-pudding? This methinks will be a gay surprise to the young folk when they have made their way through the less tasty crust." So far all went forward harmoniously; but when the cake was made, a subject of violent discord arose. Simon insisted that being pudding, it should be boiled, while Nelly no less passionately contended that being dough, it should be baked. The dispute, sad to tell, passed from words to blows, for Nelly, not choosing to let her province in the household be thus interfered with, jumped up and threw her baking-stool at Simon; while he, for his part, seized a besom and applied it with right good will to the head and shoulders of his spouse. The battle waxed so warm that it might have had a serious result, had not Nelly, who was beginning to get the worst of the encounter, suggested a way out of the difficulty. "If we go on like this," says she, "the children will be here to find us quarrelling, and no cake for them. Let us boil it first, and then bake it, and all will be well." Simon agreed to this, the big pot was set on the fire, the pieces of besom used for firing, and the broken pieces of the stool thrown on to boil the pot, so that no traces of the encounter should be left. Some eggs which had been broken in the scuffle were used to coat the outside of the pudding when boiled, which gave it the shining gloss it possesses as a cake. This new and admirable production so delighted the young folk, that thereafter each year they brought one home as a present to their parents. It became known as the cake of Simon and Nelly, but as time went on, only the first part of each name was preserved and joined together, so that ever since the cake has been known as Simnel.


This full-blooded mediaeval story is surely well worth preserving; no one who understands anything of the true principles of education will be ready to despise it as worthless. Folk-lore is the history-book of the imagination; often it shows us, as nothing else could, the real significance of ancient customs. It gives them atmosphere and colour, it turns a photograph into a picture, it lights up the dull landscape of history with the warm sunshine of romance. So with this old story of Simon and Nelly. It illustrates in a very vivid way some important principles which lie behind the practice of "going a-mothering," principles which we shall do well to bear in mind as we set ourselves to revive this ancient and admirable custom. To begin with it reminds us of the important and often forgotten truth that the parents share the responsibility for their children. Clearly Simon felt that it was a "fathering" as well as a "mothering" day, and that he had a right to have his say about the preparations. Nelly, on the other hand, was doubtless of the opinion that as she had brought the children into the world and nurtured them, their home-coming was primarily to see her, and her husband was not entitled to have a say about the arrangements. It may well be that like many modern fathers, Simon had been content, through disinclination or laziness, to leave the early care of the children almost entirely to their mother. Be that as it may^ he was entirely justified in asserting, however late in the day, that the responsibility for them was a joint responsibility, which he shared equally with her.

Looked at in this way, the story of the Simnel cake, boiled by direction of the father, baked by direction of the mother, and bearing the names of both, becomes an allegory of a deep spiritual truth. It is important to dwell on this truth, because without it our efforts to revive Mothering Sunday may lead to a false and mischievous impression. There is a real danger that women should be inclined to exalt motherhood above fatherhood, and to desire constant congratulation on a vocation which enables them to fulfil the highest law of their nature, and which gives them, with all its pains and anxieties, the deepest joy and satisfaction which it is possible for humanity to experience.

Any observance of Mothering Sunday which ministers to this false impression will do far more harm than good, for it will obscure instead of revealing the true ideal of the Christian home. Parents, let me repeat, share the responsibility for their children. Upon the father rests pre-eminently the duty of providing for them, while nature has given to the mother special aptitudes for caring for their needs when quite young, and not only exercising towards them a marvellous patience, but also finding a constant joy in considering and interesting herself in their sorrows and needs. But just as the mother is not freed from the duty of assisting in their maintenance by her labour if need be, so the father is by no means wholly emancipated from taking such interest as he may, and giving such assistance as he can, in the early care of his children. There is a great lesson to be learned in many a poor home, where the husband after a hard day's work, realizing that his wife has had her hard day too, takes his share in the care of the little children.

As with the maintenance of children and the care of their spiritual needs, so with regard to their education, the responsibility of the parents is a joint one. In the early days the mother has naturally the greater part to play; but there is a chivalrous relationship between father and daughter in a Christian home which has a special power in the education of a woman's mind and character; just as, in the same way, good sons learn towards good mothers a specially reverent and protective tenderness, which is of vast importance in their education. Both father and mother should feel that God has laid upon them jointly the responsibility of training their children to be good men and women, God-fearing and high-minded and loving, willing to do honest work and live simple lives and serve their day and generation, "deserving the respect of their fellow-countrymen and the love of their fireside, bearing good fortune meekly, suffering ill with constancy, and through evil or through good upholding truth always."


We notice, further, that the whole interest of the Simnel story centres in the children; without them, indeed, there would be no story at all. The thoughts of Simon and Nelly are with their children, their squabble is about them, their preparations are for them, their reconciliation is because of them. Here we reach the innermost meaning of Mothering Sunday, and may find the most powerful argument for its revival. The rapidly falling birth-rate, the plea for increased facilities for divorce, the open advocacy by influential writers of what is called "companionate marriage," are signs of a widespread and most disturbing tendency to separate marriage from its primary purpose, and so to weaken and finally to disintegrate the home as a social unit. Though, of course, the home fulfils other functions too, providing for husband and wife mutual help and comfort, a fuller life and a greater opportunity for self-realization than they could have without it, it remains true that it is primarily a nest. To hand on, not only physical life, but our moral and spiritual qualities to the next generation, and to help them to use them better than we have done, appears to be one of the chief purposes of our presence in this world at all. For the fulfilment of this purpose the home is an essential condition. Nature herself teaches us this in two ways: first by limiting the number of offspring in the long process of evolution, so that unlike^ the lower animals, children are never too many to claim the individual love and care of their parents; and secondly by bringing them into the world helpless, so that, again unlike the lower animals, they are completely dependent on their parents during the long period of infancy and adolescence. The home exists chiefly for the sake of the children; that is a fundamental principle of Christian home-life, and only when married people realize that principle and act upon it can they hope to experience the full joy of their union. When they are childless through no fault of their own, they suffer a great loss, which can partly be made good through various forms of social service, of which perhaps the adoption of an orphan child is the most Christlike and fruitful. Where they evade the responsibility of parenthood through selfishness, they have no real right to a home-life whose chief purpose they are not prepared to fulfil, and they are their own worst enemies, for they forfeit the greatest happiness life has to offer, a happiness which continues when the children have grown up and left the home, and finds its deepest satisfaction in the offering of part of themselves to bring other homes to birth.

Finally, it will not have escaped the attention of the reader that though the children in the story have left home, the thought of them continues to exercise a powerful restraining influence on their parents. The quarrel must be made up and all traces of it removed before they arrive. Here, as is so often the case in folk-lore, the details are almost more important than the story. The besom, the baking-stool, and the eggs, broken in the scuffle, are transmuted by the power of love, and become the means of creating a welcome for the children.

The words of our Saviour, "For their sakes I sanctify myself," strike with a special power of appeal on the heart of every true father and mother. They know that what they wish their children to be, they must try to be themselves, for in the home it is especially true that an ounce of practice is worth a ton of precept. In consequence, as the years pass, they come to think not so much of what they have taught their children as of what they have learned from them. "How admirable," says Herbert Spencer, "is the arrangement through which human beings are led by their strongest affections to subject themselves to a discipline they would else elude." Wordsworth sings to the same effect:

O dearest, dearest boy! my heart
For better lore would seldom yearn,
Could I but teach the hundredth part
Of what from thee I learn.

The conquest of selfishness, the joy of self-sacrifice, the restraint of speech, the curbing of temper, the willingness to adjust conflicting wishes, these are some of the valuable lessons our children teach us. Here, surely, is one of the most important reasons why God "setteth the solitary in families." He desires not only that we should train up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, but that by so doing our own characters should be formed and strengthened, and that we should be brought nearer to him ourselves.

I have dealt with this subject almost entirely from the standpoint of the parents. But in order that the children may have their say, let me end with some verses of a charming Mothering Sunday Carol by George Hare Leonard:

It is the day of all the year,
Of all the year the one day,
When I shall see my mother dear
And bring her cheer,
A-mothering on Sunday.

So I'll put on my Sunday coat,
And in my hat a feather,
And get the lines I writ by rote,
With many a note,
That I've a-strung together.

And now to fetch my wheaten cake
To fetch it from the baker,
He promised me, for mother's sake,
The best he'd bake
For me to fetch and take her.

The boys will all come home from town
Not one will miss that one day;
And every maid will bustle down
To show her gown,
A-mothering on Sunday.

It is the day of all the year,
Of all the year the one day;
And here come I, my mother dear,
And bring you cheer,
A-mothering on Sunday.

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