Mothering Sunday or Laetare
The fourth Sunday of Lent is known as Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, or Laetare Sunday. The opening words of the service on this day were traditionally “O be joyful, Jerusalem” (Laetare Jerusalem). In addition, the Gospel reading for this Sunday was the story of the miracle of the five loaves and fishes—the refreshment given to the people following Jesus. As such, this day also consists of a relaxation of Lenten fasts.
Since at least the 16th century, English churches celebrated the refreshment aspect of the fourth Sunday of Lent as Mothering Sunday—our equivalent to Mother’s Day. The celebration consisted of giving workers a day off to visit their “mother church” where their family and mother lived and worshiped. This was known as going “a mothering.” The occasion for family reunions inspired certain traditions to honor one’s mother such as flowers, eggs, or cakes.
Simnel cakes became the favored cake for Mothering Sunday. A simnel cake is a fruit cake (sultanas, currants, cherries, orange and lemon peel) covered with a flat layer of marzipan decorated with eleven marzipan balls—representing the twelve disciples minus Judas.
“I’ll to thee a Simnell bring ‘Gainst thou go’st a mothering,
So that, when she blesseth thee, Half that blessing thou’lt give to me”
—Robert Herrick, 1648