I did not think this would be the title of my article.
I thought I was going to have an angry rant about the commercialisation of this day, about the suggestion it gives that mothers want to be given pink things, or overpriced chocolates and flowers – the production of which is destroying our planet with chemicals…. I thought I was going to write about how narrow-minded the cards one can buy seem to be, focusing as they do on thanking mum for all the cooking and the cleaning, all in pink; about how this deification of mothers is another way to make women feel inadequate when they become mothers, or doesn’t allow for the lonely road that is believing you are the only person whose mother is a bit rubbish and not worthy of thanks… And I thought I’d write about how alienating the holiday can be for single mothers, single dads and children of single-parent families.
I also thought that before I started ranting I should make sure I knew exactly what Mother’s Day is about. I had a vague idea that it has something to do with Easter but wasn’t sure exactly what. I researched the history and I have to say that, despite still believing all the rant-worthy things about the commercial side of the day, I have completely fallen in love with Mother’s Day and I will celebrate it every year until the day I die.
My history lesson starts with today and will work its way backwards.
The commercialised Mother’s Day we recognise today was modelled on something which started in America in the late 19th century, and has its roots purely in the desire to express appreciation for mothers. It was brought to the UK in the 1920s and by the 1950s was widespread and commercialised, which explains why there is still such a heavy emphasis on mid-century values of motherhood and homemaking in the cards and gifts widely available.
We in the UK, however, celebrate Mother’s Day on a different day to our transatlantic friends. Constance Penswick Smith, who was responsible for establishing Mother’s Day in the UK, was from a family of vicars and chose the traditional Christian Mothering Sunday to be the date of Mother’s Day. This explains why my Granny always calls it Mothering Sunday. But what was it?
It had historically been the fourth Sunday of Lent, a surprising feast day in the middle of Lenten fasting. It was a day when everyone, even servants, would return to their ‘mother church’ where they were baptised. It was the only day of the year when working-class families could all be together, as servants usually had to work on other holidays. Due to the celebrations taking place in the spring, there was an emphasis on flowers, decorating the church with flowers, and giving flowers to their mothers. There were even special types of Mothering Sunday cakes, which developed over time.
This is where my interest was piqued. Why the random feast day in the middle of Lent? Its real name was Laetare Sunday but became known as Mothering Sunday because of the return to the ‘mother church’? Really? The only information I could find about it is that it occurs on or near the vernal or spring equinox. Now I sensed pagan roots forming, and delved further….
The Romans had a week-long celebration of a demi-deity called Attis, and the day of the vernal equinox was supposed to be a celebration of his resurrection. Three days after his death. Involving carrying a tree trunk through the streets and being killed. Sound familiar? (Fun fact: the reason the date of Easter changes every year, despite the Romans’ scrupulous recording of events, is because it is calculated according to the first full moon after the vernal equinox).
But let’s talk more about Attis. He was the ‘husband’ of the Magna Mater, Cybele. When Cybele first decided to make Attis hers, by gate-crashing his wedding to a princess, he was so overcome by her power that he and his would-be father-in-law went mad and chopped off their own genitals. Cybele felt bad about this and made Attis a demi-god, and their followers in Greek and Roman society were eunuchs. There was another romantic spring festival for Cybele, the Megalesia, which was about agriculture and involved castration of livestock.
Who on earth was Cybele? I’ve always been interested in Greek gods and their Roman counterparts, but had never heard of Cybele. Well, she wasn’t technically a Greek goddess, but it was very common for these ancient empires to absorb the deities of territories they expanded into, to keep the people happy. The Greeks found Cybele strange and exotic but she was welcomed into their pantheon. Aside from her association with castration, she rode a chariot pulled by lions, and lived in the Leo constellation, and was usually depicted seated.
This is where it gets really good so stay with me. Cybele was originally a Phrygian goddess. She was the lead deity of their pantheon, but the only female. She was goddess of agriculture and fertility, and reigned as ‘mother nature’ from 1200 to 700BCE.
But before the Phrygian people, there was a society called Çatalhöyük, from around 7500BCE. Archaeologists have discovered a probable precursor to Cybele, in the form of many figurines of a female deity (and not very many male ones). She is depicted seated and pregnant, flanked by two lionesses. It is unclear whether she was a goddess of harvest, fertility or death, or all three and more. Many ancient religions linked fertility with agriculture, and birth with death, and represented them with a female deity. It is believed that Çatalhöyük was a completely gender equal society or perhaps a matriarchal one.
That is the end of my history lesson. Let me sum up this amazing theory: nearly 10,000 years ago, a powerful goddess was revered above all else. She clung on through the religions, being incarnated as various mother nature characters or fertility goddesses, associated with lions and always remaining powerful, to the point where the males surrounding her were castrated. And her festival has survived until today, and is now called Mother’s Day. And if that’s not amazing, I don’t know what is.
By all means, join me in eschewing the commercialised aspect of modern Mother’s Day. But this is a day of ancient celebration of the power of all women.
*DISCLAIMER* I am not an anthropologist, theologian, historian, or even a Christian. I don’t want to offend anyone, and would love to hear more information on this topic from those more knowledgeable than I am.