Since at least the mid-17th Century the Fourth Sunday in Lent has been known in England as “Mothering Sunday”. On this day children and young persons living apart from their parents would go home for the day, usually bringing a cake for their mother. It was generally accepted that apprentices and serving-girls had a right to the day off. The custom appears to have originated in the western side of England and later spread to the midlands; it never seems to have been universal, as some writers in the 18th and 19th centuries stated that they had never heard of it before. There is no proof for or against the idea that the custom was founded on an earlier Church custom of parishioners visiting the Mother Church on Lent IV, but the authors of The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore hold that “given the regional nature of the family-visit Mothering Sunday it seems unlikely that there is a connection between the two customs”.
It should not be forgotten, though, that the Epistle for this Sunday in The Book of Common Prayer, which is taken from the fourth chapter of the Letter to the Galatians, includes (and in the last Canadian revision begins with) the verse, “Jersualem which is above is free; which is the mother of us all.” Nonetheless, Blunt’s Annotated Book of Common Prayer (new edition, 1892), which mentions this verse in its notes, makes no reference to “Mothering Sunday”.
It has also been suggested that the name Mothering Sunday is a corruption of “Midlenting Sunday”. A French name was “Mi-Carême”. We do not have space to discuss the use of rose-coloured vestments and increased festivity on this day except to remember the custom at Rome on Lent IV of blessing the “Golden Rose” which was presented by the Pope to some person for distinguished service to the Church in the past year
The American Mother’s Day, which Miss Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia persuaded Congress to establish in 1913 (some say she used emotional blackmail to achieve this end, asserting that if they did not support the day the legislators did not love their mothers), was brought to Britain by GIs in World War II and became popular. It was there established on Mothering Sunday (rather than the Second Sunday in May). It seems to me that to keep an ecclesiastical Mother’s Day in Lent, no matter how tenuous its authority, is preferable to celebrating a foreign and almost entirely commercial day in May which is, after all, nothing but a pseudopomp.
The traditional Gospel for this Sunday is the Johannine account of the feeding of the five thousand (John 6). From this Gospel comes the name Dominica Refectionis or Refreshment Sunday. The Introit was Laetare, Jerusalem, whence another name for this Sunday.