By Philip Carter
This Sunday, if you give (or receive) cards, flowers, and gifts for Mothering Sunday, spare a thought for Constance Adelaide Smith. In 1913 Constance read an article in a local newspaper which described plans to introduce to Britain an American ‘Mother’s Day’ celebration. The aim, as devised by the Philadelphian Anna Jarvis, was to establish a celebration to be held annually on the second Sunday in May. In the United States, Jarvis’s Mother’s Day celebration had quickly taken off, having gained congressional and presidential approval in 1908 and 1914.
In Nottingham, Constance Smith thought otherwise. While recognizing the appeal and value of a day dedicated to mothers, she sought not to encourage Anna Jarvis’s secular holiday, but to revive and promote the English practice of ‘Mothering Sunday’—a traditional feature of the early modern church calendar, but one that had fallen into neglect by the early twentieth century.
Over the next 25 years, until her death in 1938, Constance Smith dedicated herself to the observance and promotion of a Christian festival—held on the fourth Sunday of Lent (and thus falling between 1 March and 4 April)—that celebrated both the mother church and earthly mothers. In books, cards, plays, and poems Constance Smith explained the meaning of Mothering Sunday and encouraged the making and giving of traditional foods, such as simnel cakes and wafer cakes. By 1938 it was said that Mothering Sunday was celebrated in every parish across Britain and in every country of the British empire. By comparison the appeal of the American-style Mother’s Day remained limited, at least until the Second World War.
Thereafter, and due partly to the influence of US servicemen stationed in Britain in the 1940s, the practice of Mother’s Day revived and became increasingly interwoven with Mothering Sunday. Commercial pressures to give cards, flowers, and bought gifts (rather than traditional foods) has firmly established today as ‘Mother’s Day’, though in Britain its annual timing continues to be determined by the Christian calendar. Interestingly, neither Constance Smith, nor Anna Jarvis, were married or had children.
Listen to Constance Smith’s biography podcast:
Philip Carter is Publication Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the national record of men and women who have shaped British history and culture, worldwide, from the Romans to the 21st century. In addition to 58,500 life stories, the ODNB offers a free, twice monthly biography podcast with over 175 life stories now available. You can also sign up for Life of the Day, a topical biography delivered to your inbox, or follow @odnb on Twitter for people in the news. The Oxford DNB is freely available via public libraries across the UK. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to log-on to the complete dictionary, for free, from home (or any other computer) twenty-four hours a day.