Romans called their Mother's Day celebration Hilaria, a three-day festival dating back to 250 BC. It started on March 15 and involved making offerings in the temple of Cybele, the mother of the gods.
Early Christians celebrated the event on the fourth Sunday of Lent (the 40-day period leading up to Easter) in honor of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ.
Several deities in Ancient Egypt honored mothers, motherhood, and childbirth. The goddess Bast was believed to be the mother of all cats on Earth, at a time when cats were believed to be sacred animals. Mut, a vulture, was the mother goddess and wife of Amen. Nekhbet was another vulture, the goddess of Upper Egypt, childbirth, and protector of Pharaoh. Her temple includes a mamissi (birth house), dedicated to the embodiment of Hathor.
In contemporary Egypt, motherhood continues to be considered the most important role a woman will ever play in her life. In fact, after the birth of her first child, a woman is no longer addressed or referred to by her first name. Instead, she becomes "Mother of ... [first baby's name]." If the first-born child is a daughter and if that birth is later followed by a son's, she is then called, "Mother of . . . [son's name]."
Today's Egypt continues to revere mothers and motherhood with a celebration held on March 21, the first day of spring. The holiday is celebrated much as it is in the United States, with children preparing school projects and families giving the mother gifts of dates, jewelry, candied fruit, cakes, flowers, and personal clothing items.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, the celebration changed to honor the Mother Church—the power that gave Christians spiritual life and protected them from harm.
In the 1600s, England expanded the Romans' celebration to include all mothers, while the pagan goddess Cybele was permanently replaced by a veneration of the Church Mother. Over time, people began honoring their own mothers as well as the church, and the religious festival blended into Mothering Sunday, celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent, the 40-day fast leading up to Easter. Another name for the celebration was Mid-Lent Sunday.
The celebration involved attending church services in honor of the Virgin Mary and giving gifts, flowers, and Mother Day's cakes.
At that time, many poor people worked as servants or apprentices in wealthier people's homes, often living far from their families. It became the custom for employers to grant time off to live-in servants, to enable them to visit their families on Mother's Day.
Celebration foods included a mothering cake, or fumetry, a porridge made of wheat grains boiled in sweetened, spiced milk. Carlings—steeped peas fried in butter with salt and pepper—were another Mother's Day specialty of northern England and Scotland. The appeal of this dish spread to the extent that now the day is referred to as Carling Sunday.