Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day?

Today is Mothering Sunday in the UK, on which people honour their mothers, often giving gifts and cards. However, unlike the American Mother’s Day, which is celebrated on the second Sunday in May and is a 20th century invention, Mothering Sunday has much earlier origins as a date in the Church calendar, when people returned to their “mother church” – the nearest large church or cathedral – on the fourth Sunday of Lent. As such, the date moves with the date of Easter, so can fall any time from the start of March to mid-April.

Despite its historical significance in the UK, it is now almost impossible to buy a card that says, “Happy Mothering Sunday”. Almost all cards now say, “Happy Mother’s Day”. This is at least partly because people are looking for a celebration that is the exact equivalent to the entirely American-invented Father’s Day, but also reflects the general trend to pick up American words and phrases to displace our own, which is then compounded by the media using the same expressions.

This erosion of our culture is unfortunate, particularly as it’s happening without people realising. Most people don’t realise the term they are using is American. While many people in the UK are not religious and don’t consider themselves Christians, even the famous athiest Richard Dawkins has said that Christian traditions form an important part of our nation’s heritage. Almost everyone celebrates Christmas, but few go to church, and many people are non-believers. Christmas is an important festival during which families get together and people show seasonal goodwill towards other, even if it has little or no religious significance to most people. Anyway attempts to rename Christmas have quite rightly been subjected to ridicule. So why should we rename Mothering Sunday? If people prefer to celebrate the American holiday, they can do so in May. But changing the name of Mothering Sunday to its American counterpart is the equivalent of British people deciding to celebrate Thanksgiving on 25 December. Using the name Mothering Sunday is in keeping with the British tradition of retaining historical dates from the Church calender, but giving the festivals a modern, secular meaning that’s inclusive for everyone.

Another good reason for avoiding “Mother’s Day” is that it removes the dilemma of where to put the apostrophe. I have seen all three possibilities this year: Mother’s Day, Mothers Day and Mothers’ Day. The first is by far the most common, yet it could actually be argued that any one of them is correct. Unfortunately, many people won’t even think about what the apostrophe means, which is probably why it’s generally put before the “s”, where they think an apostrophe is automatic. It’s far better to use a name for the day that doesn’t require an apostrophe at all.

The irony is, I have an American-made calendar on my wall, and it manages to correctly identify today as Mothering Sunday. It shows Mother’s Day as being 11 May. The Americans themselves appear to have no problem accepting different countries’ conventions and culture, it’s just that the British seem to have no idea about their own.

2 responses to “Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day?”

  1. Pippa

    Thank you very much for this enlightening article. From now on, I shall refer to Mothering Sunday as Mothering Sunday and will be able to explain the difference between that and the American Mother’s (Mothers’!) Day to others – I shall enjoy passing this on!

  2. rgcann

    What a lovely article. I, too, have great difficulty in buying a Mothering Sunday card. I would rather make my own than resort to sending one with Mother’s Day on it! I am not religious but just enjoy the traditions that set our little country apart from everyone else.

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