Unexpected Festivals

It is always a challenge, living as a Pagan in a Christian country, to decide how to celebrate festivals. It is even more of a challenge to explain to M why we are celebrating on different days to everyone else in the country. Normally I try and think through what my approach will be to each festival before it arrives. And then one catches me completely by surprise.

Today is apparently Mother’s Day. Originally known as Mothering Sunday, it was the day when young girls in service would return home to go to their mother church and has been celebrated in England since at least the sixteenth century. They would pick flowers along the way to give as an offering, either to the church or to their mothers. The day was also known as Pudding Pie Sunday, Simnel Sunday, Refreshment Sunday or Rose Sunday, being a short break from the general austerity on week four of Lent so that the underfed daughters could have a good meal and possible something to take back with them.

Mothering Sunday has morphed into Mother’s day over recent years, maybe because fewer people go to church or feel strongly allied to a particular church, or maybe because of influences from the American Mother’s Day – which has an entirely different history. Ann Reeves Jarvis began organising mother’s groups, along with various other women, in the 1850s to promote peace and tackle issues such as infant mortality and milk contamination. They tended to both sides during the civil war in the 1860s, and in 1868 a Mother’s Friendship Day was held for mothers of fallen soldiers to mourn together, whether they were union or confederate. Her daughter Anna Jarvis then created Mother’s Day in May 1908 to honour her mother (who died in 1905), as a local event in their home state of Virginia and after much lobbying, nationally from 1914. She later tried to have the holiday stopped after it became too commercial.

I have never celebrated Mother’s day before, nor wanted to. It hasn’t felt right to me to annex a Christian festival to gain recognition – something which is either there anyway, or won’t come because of one day. Neither have I ever felt comfortable with the commercialisation of the American Mother’s Day. Other mothers may feel differently about this, and that is fine, but that is how I have felt. So it was very disconcerting to say the least to find my daughter presenting me with flowers and card she had made at nursery this week!

As it would have been churlish of me to refuse the gift offered, it has made me re-examine my feelings towards Mother’s Day. Most likely I became biased against the day over many years of not being able to have children – there is nothing like a yearly reminder of something I haven’t got to make me reinterpret the situation into something non-threatening. And then reading about the history, I discovered that, like so many other Christian festivals, it may have a Pagan root.

The Ancient Greeks celebrated the Earth Goddess Rhea, the Mother of the Gods and Goddesses, every Spring with festivals of worship. The Romans celebrated her better known counterpart, the Phrygian Goddess Cybele in March with offerings of flowers, reeds, pine and oak. Unfortunately at this point the ‘may’ of pagan history comes into play. Every online source I found states as fact that the March Hilaria is a precursor to Mother’s Day, and at least three of the twelve or fourteen days are celebrating Cybele and motherhood; but a key focus of the festival is the death and resurrection of her lover Attis, which to me is an Easter story. However, since Cybele was known as The Great Mother, and this was her festival in March, the connection to Mother’s day appears to have stuck. Two thousand years on it is difficult to know which aspect, motherhood or resurrection, was more important.

So I have now come to see Mother’s Day as a way to celebrate all mothers, from the Earth mother down through dynasties of Goddesses and humans, to myself as a mother on this Earth. It is a festival of Spring, of fullness, of flowers and trees, and of joining families together through the power of the mother. I will go and enjoy the sunshine with my own family.

I now wait and see if there will be a similar offering for Father’s day…

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