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A Bit About... Mothering Sunday

Posted on March 26, 2014

Our fantastic volunteer Maggie has researched the history of Mothering Sunday, a day for servants to return to their Mother Church ie their home parish.


The tradition of Mothering Sunday in this country is closely connected to the Church.  Most people who went to Church did so in the Parish Church nearest to their home.  However, many people at what would seem to be a very early age, often as young as 10 years old, left home to begin work.  Many of these went to become servants to wealthier families, frequently many miles away.  Servants had very little time off from their duties, but it was thought to be important that once a year they should return to worship in their ''Mother Church', the Church nearest to their home and of course visit their mothers and their families. The traditional day for this visit was on the fourth Sunday in the Church season of Lent. There are different possibilities for the meaning of the word Lent. The Anglo Saxon origins of the word can mean 'lengthen' or 'Spring', but both are linked to the idea of that time of year when the days lengthen and new life emerges. 

Lent is the period of 40 days leading to Easter, marked by a period of fasting and personal reflection; our tradition of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent starts began as a way of exile using up food before fasting began.

 On the fourth Sunday in Lent the rules of fasting were relaxed.  In fact the day was also called Refreshment Sunday, The Bible Gospel readings for that day traditionally focused on food, with the story of Jesus feeding five thousand people, so food became one of the focal points of Mothering Sunday.

Not only were servants allowed the day off to return to their family home and Mother Church, but were often allowed to make a cake to take to their mothers - Simnel Cake. People would also pick flowers as they made their way home to give to their mothers or to decorate the Church and, in particular, posies of violets became traditional. In fact sugar violets would be added as decoration to the Simnel cakes along with 11 marzipan balls to represent the 11 disciples. The twelfth disciple, Judas, who traditionally was held to have betrayed Jesus to the authorities, is not represented.

Simnel cake is a spiced fruit cake with two layers of almond paste (marzipan) one on top and one through the middle of the cake. Why 'Simnel'?  The name probably originated from the Latin word 'simila', a fine wheat flour used for baking.  Another legend has it that a married couple, Simon and Nell argued about whether they should bake or boil their cake. In the end, apparently, they did both, hence the name Sim - Nel. 


A Recipe for Simnel Cake

(From Mary Berry)

Serves: 12

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time:  2 ¼ hours

 You will need

175g soft butter or margarine, plus extra for greasing

175g light muscovado sugar

3 eggs

175g self-raising flour

175g sultanas

90g currants

90g glacé cherries, quartered, rinsed, and dried

30g candied peel, roughly chopped

Grated zest of 1 large lemon

1 tsp ground mixed spice


For the filling and decoration:

500g almond paste

2 tbsp apricot jam

1 egg white

Deep 18 cm (7 in) round loose-bottomed cake tin



1. Roll out one-third of the almond paste. Using the base of the cake tin as a guide, cut out an 18 centimetre round.

2. Grease the cake tin and line the bottom and side with greaseproof paper.

3. Combine all the cake ingredients in a bowl. Beat well until thoroughly blended. Spoon half of the cake mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the surface. Top with the round of almond paste.

4. Spoon the remaining cake mixture on top and level the surface.

5. Bake in a preheated oven at 150°C/gas mark 2 for two and a quarter hours or until golden brown and firm to the touch.

6. Cover the top of the cake with greaseproof paper if it is browning too quickly. Leave to cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the tin, and leave to cool completely.

7. Warm the jam and use to brush the top of the cake.

8. To decorate the cake, roll out half of the remaining almond paste and use the tin to cut out an 18 centimetre round. Put on top of the jam and crimp the edges. Roll the remaining almond paste into eleven even-sized balls. Place around the edge of the cake, attaching them with egg white.

9. Brush the tops of the balls and the almond paste with egg white. Place under a hot grill for one to two minutes, until the balls are golden.

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