Mother's Day origins: What is the history of Mother's Day?

a collage showing a mum and daughter hugging on Mother's Day

Ever wondered about Mother's Day origins and why we celebrate the special day? We share the history behind the tradition plus some fascinating facts.

There's no greater friend or support than a mother. From raising us as kids to sticking by us as moody teenagers and being the occasional shoulder to cry on - they've always had our backs. Which is often why we celebrate Mother's Day every year in the UK.

Though the traditional day started several centuries ago it has remained an important date in the calendar and has today evolved to include the custom shop-bought or homemade Mother's Day card (opens in new tab), flowers and generous Mothering Sunday gifts (opens in new tab). To prepare you and perhaps inspire some Mother's Day activities (opens in new tab) ahead of the event, we share some fascinating facts on how the holiday began.

What are the origins of Mother's Day?

The origins of Mother's Day and commemorating motherhood is a concept that dates back to the Ancient Greeks. In their spring festival, they celebrated the goddess Rhea, considered the Mother of the Gods. Rhea was closely associated with another mother goddess, Cybele, whom the Romans honoured.

Since at least the 16th century, Mothering Sunday has featured in the UK Christian calendar. And a study into Mother's Day celebrations (opens in new tab) reveals it now takes place in over 152 countries worldwide. 

Senior woman and her daughter gifting her flowers on Mother's Day.

Credit: Getty

Originally it wasn’t a celebration of motherhood, but a time during Lent when people returned to their mother church – the main church – for a special service. This is why Mother's Day falls annually on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

The tradition of gifting came from families reuniting at this Mothering Sunday service too. Children would pick flowers on route to church and gift bouquets to their mothers. Hence why an online flower delivery (opens in new tab) is still considered the go-to gift for Mother's Day today. 

In Medieval times, apprentices and servants would be given Mothering Sunday off to return home to their mothers too. They would take a special Mother's Day cake (opens in new tab) known as a Simnel cake. This was a rich fruit mixture with layers of almond paste in the middle and on top, and decorated with 11 marzipan balls to represent the apostles of Jesus – minus Judas Iscariot.

Mother's Day celebrations declined in popularity in the 1900s but was rejuvenated by the efforts of an American woman named Anna Jarvis in the 20th Century. Jarvis’s lobbying of President Woodrow Wilson resulted in Mother's Day becoming an official American holiday in 1914. 

When did Mother's Day start in England?

Since the 1950s, Mothering Sunday has been a permanent fixture in the UK calendar. Moved by Ms Jarvis efforts, an English woman named Constance Penswick Smith worked to establish the UK’s Mothering Sunday Movement.

Passionate about it's revival Constance founded the Society for the Observance of Mothering Sunday. And she additionally wrote a book titled The Revival of Mothering Sunday (opens in new tab) published February 19, 1921.

It took a while for her efforts to pay and eventually campaigning was aided by the Second World War, where soldiers paid thanks to their mothers from afar. 

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How do we celebrate Mother's Day now?

These days, it's less about Simnel cakes and more about sentiments. A modern Mother's Day celebration typically includes flowers, chocolates, treating her to a nice dinner out or a bottle of her favourite tipple. This is in addition to a thoughtful Mother's Day card.

According to Amanda Fergusson from the Greeting Card Association (opens in new tab), we spend a staggering £73 million each year on Mother’s Day. And Brits send more cards per person than any other nation.

Girl hiding a mother's day greeting card for her mother behind back

Credit: Getty

We also love giving flowers – two bouquets will be delivered every second across the UK on Mother’s Day, according to Inteflora. That’s 15 times more than an ordinary day. While pink flowers are a favourite, vibrant colours are increasingly popular. Our top five picks are carnations, roses, sunflowers, gerberas and tulips.

Brits enjoy raising more than just a glass to their much-loved mums on the day too. Alcohol sales have seen a spike around Mother's Day in recent years with Gin skyrocketing in popularity. Mother's Day gifting data (opens in new tab) reveals that sales of the aptly nicknamed 'Mother's Ruin' increased by 21% in 2018.

Modern Mother's Day has also seen a shift from in-person to online shopping. 2020 market research (opens in new tab) into the holiday found that the percentage of shoppers buying Mother's Day gifts online grew by 3.6%. This was no doubt aided by the pandemic and the increasing popularity of online orders.

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Emily Stedman
Emily Stedman

Emily Stedman is the News Features Editor for GoodTo covering all things royal, entertainment, lifestyle, health and wellbeing. Boasting an encyclopaedic knowledge on all things celebrity and royal, career highlights include working at HELLO! Magazine and as a royal researcher to Diana biographer Andrew Morton on his book Meghan: A Hollywood Princess. In her spare time, Emily can be found eating her way around London, swimming at her local Lido or curled up on the sofa binging the next best Netflix show.