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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Mother's Day & History

            "It's your day, Mom.  Enjoy."  That brings up a few questions, such as which day?  Which mother?  You see, the celebration of Mother's Day can be traced back to the pre-Christian era of mythology.  And what does any of this have to do with frying a bunch of green peas and serving them with bread and vinegar?  Let's see if we can sort this mess out.
            Some believe the concept of Mother's Day began with early Romans and a festival in honor of Cybele deemed the Mountain Mother.  This took place during the time of planting as Cybele represented the fertile earth, thus mother.  The festival was called Hilaria and featured exotic, even erotic dancing, and joy.  Cybele had a consort of course, as all mythological goddesses must, and he was called Attis.  At the time of planting, they first had to mourn and bury dear Attis.  Mountain Mama got her way.
            As the Romans moved through the known world they brought their myths, gods, and celebrations with them.  Christianity then moved through the Roman world, and many of those myths and holidays moved from pagan right to Christian celebration.  As one historian put it, it was easier to accept the old celebrations and fold them into the Church than it would have been to ban them outright.
            Mother's Day is celebrated around the world today; on different days in different countries, in different ways in different cultures.  In the United States we know Mother's Day as being celebrated on the second Sunday in May.  There is an International Mother's Day celebrated in many areas on May 11.  And in Argentina, mom's big day is the second Sunday in October.  Many of the traditions of Mother's Day as we know them began in Great Britain, which celebrates the day on the fourth Sunday in Lent. 
            One prominent element of the day is that it has created a family reunion tradition over the last couple of thousand years.  The Christian holiday probably began during the earliest days of the church.  The celebration wasn't designed for individual mothers but rather for what is known as the mother church, that is the church in which someone was baptized.  It brought together far-flung members of families for what is still referred to as "Mothering Sunday."
            Children that had gone off to work in other places were often given time off to attend to Mothering Sunday festivities, and from that came joyous family reunions, and as can be imagined, feasts.  In some places the day is called Refreshment Sunday and the church allowed for this during Lent.  From that has come a special treat called Simnel Cake, almost a fruitcake, as we would know it today.  The cake is in two layers separated by an almond icing.  In rural communities in England, Simnel cake is still a part of Mothering Sunday traditions looked on with a little more respect than our fruit cake traditions.
            Each Sunday in Lent has a name, Tid from TeDeum, Mid from Mi Deus, Miseray from Misereri mei, and Carling or Mothering Sunday. How does this lead us into boiling green peas, frying them in butter, and serving them with vinegar and bread?  It's a bit of a stretch, but the cakes that come from all that are called Carling Cakes and the tradition is among the oldest in the far northern reaches of the British Isles.  One definition of Carling is Old Woman.  The preparation of Carling Cakes is called Pea Scadding.
            In the northern climes there are still what are called Pea Scadding parties and not just on Mother's Day.  Many are held during harvest times, but the traditions began on Mothering Sunday and then moved to the fifth Sunday of Lent.  The green peas are locally known as carlings and at least one tall tale suggests that during a drought period years ago a ship filled with green peas ran aground and cases of peas floated to shore heading off starvation. Legend demands that the peas be soaked overnight, then boiled, then fried in butter, and served with bread and vinegar.
            It took the Americans of course to change the traditions that had built up over two thousand years in Europe.  Because of Lent, Mothering Sunday floated about on the calendars of those countries across the Atlantic.  The United States made Mother's Day a specific day, a specific holiday.  It is the second Sunday in May, but it is also one of the most commercial of all holidays with millions of cards purchased and millions of dollars in long distance charges added to phone bills.  Well, maybe not so much now that most people use cell phone service.  Billions of flowers are passed among family members.  How many carnations does it take to celebrate that day?  Impossible to tell, but there are traditions associated with them as well.
            One wears a carnation with color if one's mother is still alive, and a white carnation if she has passed on.  The day became an annual holiday following the Civil War.  In 1872 Julia Ward Howe in a proclamation dedicated to the cause of peace created the American holiday.  The feasts of Mothering Sunday probably cannot stand up to some of the meals that will be served across this country this May 12th.  Baked ham is the favorite, and in most homes, it's Mom doing the cooking.
            Maybe that's why Americans created another custom for Mother's Day: Dinner out.  Restaurants will be crowded with families, some several generations deep, and there will be few calls for Carling Cakes.
            "It's your day, Mom.  Enjoy."

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