Right off the bat, we need to make one thing clear; Mothers' Day and Mothering Sunday are not the same thing, and in the case of the latter, even the pagan lineage is questionable.
Agreed, both the Ancient Greeks and Romans worshipped Mother goddesses at springtime. The Greeks had Rhea, the wife of Cronos, to praise, and from 250 BCE, the Romans honoured the Roman goddess Magna Mater. But these were goddesses, not human beings. And to confuse things even more, Mothering Sunday in the UK is somewhat of a 16th Century afterthought, tacked onto what was originally Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent.
However, Lent does have its foundations in paganism, and is referred to in the bible (just to make it even more confusing) so let’s begin there. In Ezekiel 8:14 there is a reference to women who "Weep for Tammuz". The Tammuz in question was a sun god who was killed aged 40 by a wild boar. He was the son of sun-god Nimrod, well, sort of.
Nimrod’s wife, Semiramis, became pregnant following an affair, at around the same time Nimrod died. In order to assuage any suggestions of her unfaithfulness, Semiramis claimed that, at the time of his death, Nimrod used sun rays to impregnate her. It’s worth pausing to note that Tammuz was considered to have been divinely conceived, which probably forms the basis of the immaculate conception.
Anyway, Semiramis maintained that Tammuz was indeed the reincarnated Nimrod, making her both his wife and mother. All in all, Tammuz was a big deal to the pagans. So much so that they mourned his passing for 40 days, one for each of his years on Earth. This was then adopted by the Christians and turned into Lent: a period in which Christians are required to relinquish something they desire, usually fatty food related, in recognition of the 40 days Jesus Christ spent fasting in the desert before being crucified
Now that’s out the way we can talk about the fourth Sunday in Lent, which has many different names depending on who you ask. Laetare Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, or even Rose Sunday is basically a day off from the misery of Lent.
‘Laetare’ comes from the Latin word ‘rejoice’, which, when you think about it, is a little strange. I mean there’s no mention of Jesus spending a day rejoicing at any point throughout the 40 days he endured in the desert. Maybe Laetare Sunday was rebranded as Mothering Sunday to justify the consumption of those piously rejected treats contained within the blow-out Sunday lunch your mum has spent all morning preparing in celebration of herself.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. While Mothering Sunday may have originated as a means to break the Lent fast, it was more about the celebration of the Mother Church, personified as the Mother of Christ, as opposed to acknowledging all the efforts that constitute hands-on motherhood. Though it is worth noting that Laetare Sunday was one of the few days that domestic servants were free to spend the day with their families, so it’s possible there were some elements of the Mother's Day we have in the 21st Century.
What we do know is that in 1908, Anna Jarvis from West Virginia, pitched to the US Senate a holiday to celebrate all mothers after the death of her own. Six years later, President Woodrow Wilson granted her wish and Mother’s Day became an official holiday, celebrated in the USA on the second Sunday in May.
In the UK and Europe, this new, secular, version of Mother’s Day is still celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent. However, the focus of the original, Christian version of Mothering Sunday has shifted from the metaphorical ‘mother’ to your actual flesh and blood mum. Now Mother’s Day belongs to everyone, and is celebrated annually with last minute greeting cards, petrol-station flowers and maybe even a hand with the washing up.
Happy Mother’s Day, mum.