Origins of Mother’s Day

May 7, 2011 | 2011 Articles, Food Fun, Hometown History, Margaret Mendel

by Margaret Mendel

At the end of this article you will find a fun recipe of something you can make for mom on this Mother’s Day & a coupon for the Reedley Sandwich Shop so you can take her out for a belated Mother’s Day lunch next week!

In 1914 Woodrow Wilson set aside the second Sunday in May as the National Holiday to honor mothers. That seems a simple and contemporary concept. Yet, much more had come before this declaration.

Prehistoric tribes celebrated the mother goddess as the creation of life. In antiquity Egyptians, Romans and Greeks all celebrated the mother figure. The Egyptians had a mother deity, the goddess Isis, and regarded her as the mother of the pharaohs. The Romans celebrated the Phrygian goddess Cybele, who was also called Magna Mater or the Great Mother. Throughout Asia Minor the celebrations revering the mother figure were extremely important and over time they became so raucous and out of control that they were eventually banned. However, the more conservative celebrations honoring the mother continued and included eating honey cakes and sharing flowers.

The early Christians in Europe honored motherhood also, though the celebration took on a different life from that in Asia Minor. In Europe the Holiday fell on the fourth Sunday of Lent and was initially a day for Christians to honor their Mother Church, the church in which they had been baptized. Then in 1600’s the celebration was broadened in England to include real mothers and became known as Mothering Day, a time when servants and trades workers were allowed to travel back to their towns of origin to visit their families. Flowers and cakes were always a part of this celebration.

When the Puritans immigrated to the New World they focused on the no-frills devotion to God and did away with celebrations such as Christmas and Easter and there was certainly no more Mothering Day. Then in 1870 Julia Ward Howe, a passionate anti-slavery advocate, one of the founders of the American Women Suffrage Association and the woman who wrote the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” created a Mother’s Day Proclamation. Upset by the carnage of the Civil War she called on mothers to come together to protest what she saw as the futility of sons killing sons of other mothers. Eventually in June 1873 women’s groups in 18 North American cities began to observe what were considered Mother’s Day peace events. Ms. Howe funded these celebrations but when she discontinued contributing money most of cities lost interest.

A woman in West Virginia, Anna Reeves Jarvis, revised Ms. Howe’s Mother’s Day event, changing the name of the gathering to Mother’s Friendship Day. The purpose of this day was also related to seeking peace and was her attempt to re-unite families and neighbors that had been divided between the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War. When Anna Reeves Jarvis died, her daughter, Anna M. Jarvis continued her mother’s campaign for a Mother’s Day and on May 10, 1908 the first official Mother’s Day celebrations took place in a Methodist Church in West Virginia and a church in Philadelphia. More than 407 people attended these first celebrations and two white carnations, Anna M. Jarvis’ mother’s favorite flower and a flower symbolically associated with Mary’s tears upon witnessing her son’s crucifixion, were given to each mother.

Mother’s Day was a real hit when Woodrow Wilson declared it a National Holiday in 1914. So much so, that florists and greeting card companies made it one of their most profitable holidays. Anna M. Jarvis, distraught by the commercialization of Mother’s Day, in 1923 sued and tried to stop a Mother’s Day event. Until her death Ms. Jarvis fought against what she called, “bandits, charlatans, and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations”. She was obviously unsuccessful and today there are now more than 40 countries that observe Mother’s day.

In researching this article I looked for food that might be typically served on this special day. There were only two things that seemed to run through this holiday: flowers and in particularly, carnations, and cakes. The recipes that kept surfacing were various forms of white fruitcakes, called Simnell. Some of the recipes dated back to the time when young servant girls would bake a cake to bring home to mother on the annual visit that was allowed.

I made one of the recipes and thought its texture was quite course and that it resembled a scone or Irish soda bread. I kept my cake in the refrigerator and in the couple of days before it was eaten, the cake became moister. The original recipe called for a thin rolled out sheet of Marzipan to cover the cake but I made a cream cheese frosting instead.

Simnell Cake


1½ cups flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
Two pinches of salt
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ cup soften butter
¾ cup sugar
½ cup golden raisins
1 cup chopped dried fruits (I used dried cranberries, blueberries and cherries.)
3 eggs beaten lightly
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons brandy

Set oven at 300 degrees.

Prepare pans by greasing them well. Use either a large sized cake pan or two moderate sized layer cake pans.

Mix raisins and the other dried fruit with 1 tablespoon of flour and set aside.
Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and the spices and set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar together until mixture is light.
Beat in eggs, brandy, and vanilla.
Beat in flour mixture gradually until just combined.
Fold in dried fruit until it is well distributed throughout the batter.

Turn the batter into the pan (pans) and press into the edges. This is a very dense batter and the top will need to be smoothed out.

Bake 1 ¼ hours until a cake tester or sharp knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool a bit before removing from pan and cool completely before frosting.

6 oz. cream cheese (A note: use a good quality cream cheese. It does matter.)
½ cup melted butter
¼ cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ¾ cups confectioner’s sugar

Combine cheese, butter, milk, vanilla, and salt, blending well. Beat in confectioner’s sugar.
Frost cake and give it to your mother or to another woman dear to your heart.

Print this coupon and take to the Reedley Sandwich Shop:

Margaret Mendel was born in San Jose and has a Master’s degree in Counseling from the University of San Francisco & a Master’s of Fine Arts in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Currently residing in New York, she has had several short stories and articles published.


  1. Excellent research! I always enjoy Margaret’s recipes – and wish I had whatever she’s fixing !!

  2. For those of us history buffs, this was a wonderful synopsis. Thank you for the reminder of this special day. I hope yours was memorable.

  3. Very good and informative piece Margaret, thanks

    Hope to see you in a few days

  4. Love the article, Margaret! The cake sounds yummy, too!



  1. Mum’s the Word: A Mother’s Day Salute | Kings River Life Magazine - [...] some of our past Mother’s Day articles: Origins of Mother’s Day, and Mother’s Day Present: A mystery short [...]

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