Mar 262017

Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent and has been known by many names, Refreshment Sunday, Laetare Sunday, Rose Sunday, and Mothering Sunday, because of various customs associated with the day.  I’m going to focus on Mothering Sunday, but also tip my hat to the other names and traditions.  My mother, who was raised Anglican, vaguely mentioned it when Mothering Sunday came around each year when I was a little boy, 60 years ago, but it had no obvious meaning at the time outside of a few churches that honored it.  Then it was the custom to give little children posies of wild flowers to take to their mothers.

There is no precise documentation of what people did on Mothering Sunday historically but it seems that in the 16th century some people took the day to visit their “mother” church. What their mother church was apparently varied.  For some it was the diocesan cathedral, for others it was the church where they were baptized. It is tempting to see the latter custom as the reason why the day became a family reunion holiday, because people returning to where they were born would likely have the opportunity to visit their parents. But there is no strong evidence for this practice. However, it is known that in the 16th century going a-mothering was established in some regions of England.  Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674) wrote:


I’ll to thee a simnel bring,
‘Gainst thou go’st a-mothering:
So that when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give me.

A simnel is a simnel cake, a cake made with fine flour that has been around since the Middle Ages, and which was a customary treat on special days. Mid-Lent Sunday was commonly a time to have a small break from the fasting rigors of Lent, so a fine fruit cake was an appropriate gift to take to family on Mothering Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday. The old Gospel reading of the day concerned the miracle of loaves and fishes, so a little indulgence was warranted. After all, Sundays, even in Lent, are feast days, not fast days.

It’s not possible to make much historical sense out of the evolution of Mothering Sunday, but certainly by the 18th and (especially) 19th centuries it was customarily a day off for household servants to visit their mother church with their own mothers and other family members, or simply to visit their parents. It was often one of the few times that whole families could gather together, and because the focus was not on specific holiday celebrations it could be devoted to family activities.

By the early 20th century the custom of keeping Mothering Sunday had tended to lapse . In 1914, inspired by Anna Jarvis’s efforts in the United States, Constance Penswick-Smith created the Mothering Sunday Movement, and in 1921 she wrote a book asking for the revival of the festival. Constance was the daughter of the vicar of Coddington, Nottinghamshire, and there is a memorial in Coddington’s church. The wide scale revival of the day did not occur, however, until US and Canadian soldiers serving abroad during World War II brought Mother’s Day (a different day) to Europe.  By the late 1950s, prompted by savvy merchants, Mothering Sunday became England’s Mother’s Day, although it took some time to catch on as such.

Mid-Lent Sunday is also known as Rose Sunday, again for somewhat obscure reasons. The liturgy in Catholic and Anglican churches allows for rose-colored vestments on this day. It is said that pope Leo IX, in 1051, commanded the nuns of Bamberg in Franconia, to furnish a Golden Rose to be blessed and carried on Mid-Lent Sunday each year, but the blessing and presentation of Golden Roses by the pope was not restricted to this Sunday, although the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia asserts that “the Golden Rose, sent by the Popes to Catholic sovereigns, used to be blessed at this time, and for this reason the day was sometimes called ‘Dominica de Rosa’.”

In my Lenten wreath there is one rose candle that I extinguish on this day (the symbolic opposite of Gaudete Sunday in Advent).

Another tradition associated with Mothering Sunday is the practice of “clipping the church”, whereby the congregation form a ring around their church building and, holding hands, embrace it.

Simnel cake, via Herrick, has some association with this day, but it is more commonly associated with Easter Sunday. For a while in England “Mothering Buns” or “Mothering Sunday Buns” were made to celebrate. They are sweet yeast buns topped with pink or white icing and the multi-coloured sprinkles known as “hundreds and thousands” in the UK. They are not widely made or served today in the UK but in Australia they are a bakery staple year round.

This year I’ll eschew sweet things and go with carlings.  Carlings are pancakes made of split pies fried in butter that can still be found in the north of England and Scotland that were commonly eaten on Mothering Sunday.  You can choose whether to add herbs or not. Sage or parsley would be all right, but I don’t usually add any. You need to be fairly warned that cooking the peas too long, or not draining them sufficiently will make the carlings too moist and they will fall apart when cooked. It’s not traditional, but it might be worth it to try adding a beaten egg to the pea mix to set up the carlings better as they cook. In that case you’d need to increase the bread crumbs as well.



8 oz split green peas
4 cups stock
1 slice stale bread, grated into crumbs
1 onion, peeled and chopped finely
4 tbsp butter
dried herbs (optional)
salt and pepper


Soak the peas overnight.

Next day, drain the peas, place them in a saucepan with the stock and simmer for about an hour or until tender. Do not overcook them so that they are mushy.

Meanwhile, mix together the breadcrumbs, onion, and your choice of dried herbs.  Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and stir it into the breadcrumbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Drain the cooked peas well and stir them into the breadcrumb mix. Chill for at least 1 hour.

Season a handful of flour with salt and pepper and place it in a shallow bowl.  Form the pea mixture into patties and press each side into the seasoned flour.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the patties in batches. Cook on one side then flip the patty to cook the other side, so that they are golden on both. Flip them only once because they have a tendency to fall apart if handled too much.

Serve warm.


Jan 072017


In his compendious Book Of Days (1869) – from which title this blog gets its name – Robert Chambers asserts that 7th January, the day following Epiphany, was called St Distaff’s Day from time immemorial and was a day of merriment for women much as Plough Monday was for men. We have to take all of Chamber’s pronouncements with a large pinch of salt because his writings are not particularly scrupulous or scholarly. He gathered his material from hither and yon, and it’s a grave mistake (repeated endlessly by half wits) to assume that what he reports concerning one particular time and place was in any sense universal. Such a bad habit is the bane of English social history. Nonetheless, he quotes Herrick’s poem on St Distaff’s Day, and this poem leads me to believe that the day’s activities had some currency for a time.  This comes from the anthology, Hesperides, published in 1647:


Saint Distaffs day, or the morrow after
Twelfth day.

Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on S. Distaffs day:
From the Plough soone free your teame;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Bring in pailes of water then,
Let the Maides bewash the men.
Give S. Distaffe all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.

Given that the poem is set in imperatives it’s difficult to assess whether Herrick is recommending these activities, or describing a known state of affairs.  The general suggestion seems to be that men and women should go back to work after the Christmas break but should do so lightly and with some playfulness thrown in before settling in for the long haul.  I’d say that ploughmen burning women’s flax and their clothes, and women drenching men with water for revenge – all as a jolly jape, or as a routine sport – is unlikely. But the command ”Partly worke and partly play/ Ye must on S. Distaffs day” is probably a fair observation on the actual state of affairs, given that Plough Monday games (on the Monday after Epiphany) are well attested in many rural areas, especially East Anglia .


Chambers has nothing to add of substance about observing the day but does note:

This mirthful observance recalls a time when spinning was the occupation of almost all women who had not anything else to do, or during the intervals of other and more serious work—a cheering resource to the solitary female in all ranks of life, an enlivenment to every fireside scene. To spin—how essentially was the idea at one time associated with the female sex! even to that extent, that in England spinster was a recognized legal term for an unmarried woman—the spear side and the distaff side were legal terms to distinguish the inheritance of male from that of female children—and the distaff became a synonym for woman herself: thus, the French proverb was:

‘The crown of France never falls to the distaff.’

Now, through the change wrought by the organised industries of Manchester and Glasgow, the princess of the fairy tale who was destined to die by a spindle piercing her hand, might wander from the Land’s End to John O’ Groat’s House, and never encounter an article of the kind, unless in an archaeological museum.

dd3  dd9

A distaff is a rod that holds the material to be spun, either by spinning wheel or spindle, and was in use from ancient Egyptian times until the 19th century Industrial Revolution. The word “distaff” is still sometimes used for the maternal line or side of a family, given that using a distaff was largely (but not exclusively) women’s work.  Thus playfulness on St Distaff’s Day would seem to signify disrupting women’s work, whereas Plough Monday disrupted men’s activities. I find zero evidence for the belief that this was a Medieval custom or even that it was a particularly widespread one. Herrick’s poem seems to be the sole source and it is 17th century, and of dubious reliability. Nonetheless, you’ll read endless nonsense from spinners and weavers guilds about how the day was commonly observed throughout Medieval Europe, usually in promotional literature advertising their events in early January.

Distaff Day

For a recipe I’ve chosen fried apple pies from the 1653 cookbook A True Gentlewomans Delight

To fry Applepies.

Take Apples and pare them, and chop them very small, beat in a little Cinnamon, a little Ginger, and some Sugar, a little Rosewater, take your paste, roul it thin, and make them up as big Pasties as you please, to hold a spoonful or a little lesse of your Apples; and so stir them with Butter not to hastily least they be burned.

It’s fairly straightforward.  They are really a version of empanaditas. You have to be careful to fry them slowly so that the apples cook fully in the process and so that the butter does not burn.  Here is my version in pictures.