Ask the Past: Mother's Day

Is there a traditional present to give your mum for Mother's Day? I usually get her a card and a manicure voucher, but I'd like to do something different this year.

Mother's Day hasn't really been around very long - it was started in Philadelphia in 1907 - but it has been around longer than manicure vouchers have, so we can probably find you something more traditional.

Surprisingly, Mother's Day worked its way to NZ quite quickly. The first mention I found of it on Papers Past was in the Wairarapa Daily Times on the 3rd of July 1908:

A movement, originating in Philadelphia, is rapidly extending throughout the States to set aside May 10th each year as "Mother's Day." Every man, woman and child pledges that day to wear a white carnation "in honour of the best mother who ever lived."

I found several other articles from around 1908-1911 that mentioned wearing either white carnations, white flowers more generally, or white ribbon, so it seems like the most traditional Mother's Day gift option is nothing at all. White carnations, incidentally, mean innocence in most of the books that specifically mention them, so you'll have to decide if that's the most appropriate flower to wear for your mum. Some other options include white roses ("I am worthy of you" if they're fresh, or "transient impressions" if they're withered), white poppy ("sleep: my bane, my antidote"), white oak ("independence"), and white catchfly ("betrayed"), so there's an option there for everyone, even for people who a challenging relationship with their mums or who have issues with insomnia that they want to raise on Mother's Day.

Of course, not everyone wanted to give the Americans credit for inventing Mother's Day. I found quite a few articles (starting with this rather grumpy letter to the editor in the Dominion on the 23rd of July 1910) correcting the record:

I would like to call the attention of the Hon. Geo. Fowlds and others to the fact that America did not originate the idea, but that the practice of keeping "Mothering Sunday" is an ancient custom in England, as many can testify. Mid-Lent Sunday is the day commonly known as "Mothering Sunday," and on that day all lads and girls used to endeavour to go and visit their mothers, who, on their part, made a Simnel cake for them, as a token of their affection. Should they be unable to visit their mothers in person, the young people were in duty-bound to send some token of love, which, if possible, should take the form of a bunch of violets.

Violets, incidentally, can mean "faithfulness" (blue violets), which is a nice sentiment, but they can also mean "watchfulness" (dame violet), "modesty" (sweet violet), or "rural happiness" (yellow violets), so choose your colours carefully to avoid confusion. If you think the cake sounds like a more unambiguous choice, good news - this article from The Dominion on the 6th of May 1937 says that actually it's not your mum's job to bake you a simnel cake, it's your job to bake one for her:

One of the most charming customs of the old Mothering Sunday, which unfortunately has not survived the years, was the practice of sending a simnel cake to mothers. Quaintly enough, one legend about the origin of the simnel cake is bound up with a quarrel. According to this story, “simnel” is derived from the names of an old couple, Simon and Nell. They were always quarrelling, but one day they settled down in friendly fashion to make a cake for their children. Soon they found even in that peaceable task a cause for disagreement. One said the cake should be baked, the other that it should be boiled. Nell broke a broom over Simon’s head and Simon threw a stool at Nell. Meanwhile the crust of the cake had hardened and they were only just in time to rescue it before it was spoiled altogether. From that day, simnel cakes always had very hard crusts.

Here's a recipe for simnel cake from an article about Mothering Sunday from the New Zealand Mail on the 18th of March, 1892:

Take three eggs, and beat them up; dissolve a piece of ammonia of the size of a bean in hot water. Mix these with. a quarter of a pint of milk. Then mix together 2 1/2 lb of flour, 1 1/2 lb of butter, 2 1/2 lb of currants, 1 lb of raisins, 1 lb of sugar, 1/4 lb of sweet almonds, the rind of one lemon grated, 1/2 oz of cinnamon, and a little nutmeg and ground mace. With these, 1 lb of fresh brewers yeast must be put into sponge, but at first only half the quantity of the fruit. It is best to set it so, at, for instance, ten o’clock in the morning, and then knead it at noon, and make up into cake at three o’clock, when the rest of the fruit may be scattered in, The shape of the cake for baking should be a flat round, about two inches thick. Before and after baking the Simnel must be brushed over with treacle and water mixed. When done, a layer of very small comfit sweets should be put on the top.

And here's a more modern recipe from Aunt Daisy's Cookery Book (1953):

Eight oz. butter, 10 oz. flour, 1/4 lb mixed peel chopped, 2 oz. cherries cut up, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 8 oz. sugar, 2 oz. ground rice, 1 lb. currants, 4 eggs. Cream butter and sugar, then add eggs one at a time, then flour and fruit alternately. Place 1/2 mixture in tin, then cover with a layer of almond paste. Add other half of cake mixture. When cooked, decorate with the other half of the almond paste mixture, made thus: 8 oz. ground almonds, 3 oz. icing sugar, 1 teaspoon almond essence, 3 oz. castor sugar, 1 tablespoon melted butter, 1 well-beaten egg. Mix well and roll. Bake cake in moderate oven for about 2 1/2 hours. Almond paste may be bought ready made.

I'm sure that will help.

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