Laetare Sunday

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Related to Laetare Sunday: Gaudete Sunday

Laetare Sunday

Mid-Lent Sunday, Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday,
Rose Sunday, Sunday of the Rose

Roman Catholics and other Christians who follow the church calendar developed in western Europe celebrate the fourth Sunday in Lent as Laetare Sunday. In Latin, the official language of the Roman Catholic Church for most of its history, the word laetare means "rejoice!" The name Laetare Sunday comes from the words of the opening prayer for the Sunday mass (for more on the Roman Catholic religious service known as the mass, see also Eucharist), "Rejoice ye with Jerusalem."


Some writers believe that Laetare Sunday got its start from early Christian customs surrounding Easter baptisms. Candidates for baptism, or initiation into the Christian faith, prepared for the event throughout Lent. These preparations included fasting and penance, religious devotions designed to stimulate a change in heart and mind, as well as a study of Christian beliefs and practices (for more on penance, see Repentance). On the Wednesday after the fourth Sunday in Lent, the clergy entrusted the baptismal candidates for the first time with the Apostles' Creed, a summary of basic Christian beliefs. Thus the fourth Sunday in Lent took on a celebratory tone as the church rejoiced in anticipation of the addition of new members to the household of faith.

Even after early Christian baptismal customs were abandoned, the fourth Sunday in Lent continued to provide a small oasis of joy in the somber Lenten season. Priests wore rose-colored robes instead of the sober purple robes required throughout Lent. Organ music and flower decorations, forbidden during the rest of Lent, reappeared briefly on Laetare Sunday. In addition, in the Middle Ages a custom developed whereby the pope left morning mass on Laetare Sunday carrying a golden rose in his hand. The rose served as a symbol of joy, and later became a token of esteem that the pope bestowed upon cities, shrines, churches, and individuals. This led some Germans to call Laetare Sunday Rosensonntag, "Sunday of the Rose" or "Rose Sunday."

Roman Catholic officials reasoned that the customs associated with Laetare Sunday offered a brief respite from the solemn mood of the Lenten season. They hoped that this spot of refreshment would renew the weary and inspire them to persevere in their Lenten devotions. Orthodox, or Eastern, Christians also observe special mid-Lent customs that inspire the faithful to continue their Lenten disciplines (see also Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross).

The Bible readings traditionally assigned to Laetare Sunday in the Roman Catholic Church frequently refer to Jerusalem. Researchers believe that early Catholic authorities assigned these readings for the day because the pope celebrated Laetare Sunday mass at a church in Rome known as the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (see also Tree of the Cross).

Mothering Sunday

By the seventeenth century people in some regions of England began to observe the fourth Sunday in Lent as "Mothering Sunday." Researchers have suggested several different origins for this holiday. One line of argument asserts that the observance began in the Middle Ages. On the fourth Sunday in Lent, or Mid-Lent Sunday, people customarily returned to the church in which they had been baptized and instructed as a child. These visits to one's "mother church" suggested the name "Mothering Sunday." According to custom, people brought gifts to put on the altar. They also visited their own mothers and brought them gifts as well. In time the church-related customs faded while the traditions linking the day with home and mother thrived.

Other scholars find scant historical evidence for the church visits and suggest instead that visits to one's home and mother characterized this observance from the start. In a poem entitled "Ceremony in Glocester" (1648), English poet-priest Robert Herrick (1591-1674) penned several lines of verse to describe the Mothering Sunday customs of his day:

I'll to thee a simnell bring, 'Gainst thou go'st a-mothering, So that when she blesseth thee, Half that blessing thou'lt give to me. (Weiser, 1954: 73)

These folk customs may ultimately have been inspired by Laetare Sunday church services. At least one writer has suggested that one of the Bible readings previously assigned to the fourth Sunday in Lent in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer reminded the English to honor their mothers or their "mother church" on this day. This reading refers to Jerusalem as "the mother of us all" (Galatians 4:22-31).

Mothering Sunday declined in the early twentieth century. Live-in apprenticeships and domestic service jobs, both of which gave rise to situations in which large numbers of young people lived away from home, dwindled in this era, reducing the need for these home visits. During World War II American soldiers stationed in England introduced their own Mother's Day customs. This cross-fertilization sparked a renewal of old, English Mothering Day practices.

Traditional Mothering Sunday gifts include flowers, a rich kind of plum cake known as simnel cake, and relieving one's mother of tiresome household chores for the day. The flower most closely associated with Mothering Sunday is the violet. In fact, an old English saying assures us that "he who goes a'mothering finds violets in the lane."

German Folk Customs

In Bavaria and other parts of Germany, mock battles between a youth representing winter and another representing summer take place on Laetare Sunday. In north Baden and south Hesse people celebrate the death of winter with children's parades. The children carry sticks decorated with violets, eggshells, and pretzels. Ceremonies symbolizing the "carrying away of death" are often part of these celebrations. This association between winter and death led people from these regions of Germany to call the day "Black Sunday" or "Death Sunday." Many considered it unlucky to have a child baptized on this day.

Old folk traditions such as these dramatize people's awareness of the shifting seasons. In fact, Laetare Sunday often falls around the date of the spring equinox, the twenty-four-hour period in which night and day are of equal length. Thus Laetare Sunday may be thought of as representing the time of year when summer, the season of light and warmth, defeats winter, the season of cold and dark.

Fountain Sunday

In Italy and France people called the fourth Sunday in Lent "Fountain Sunday." This name sprang from the folk custom of decorating wells and fountains with flowers and branches on this day, as a way of celebrating the defeat of winter and welcoming spring. Similar customs were practiced in many parts of central and southern Europe.

Refreshment Sunday

Laetare Sunday is also known as "Refreshment Sunday." Some hold that the name "Refreshment Sunday" came from the Gospel reading (a selection from the Christian Bible describing the life and teachings of Christ) traditionally assigned to that day in the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches. It tells how Jesus worked a miracle to provide food for thousands of people who had followed him into the countryside to hear him teach (John 6:1-14). The Roman Catholic Church changed the readings assigned for this day in 1969.

Further Reading

Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1990. Cowie, L. W., and John Selwyn Gummer. The Christian Calendar. Springfield, MA: G. and C. Merriam, 1974. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. "Laetare Sunday." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Urlin, Ethel. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1992. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954. ---. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.

Web Site

"Frühling-Spring," an introduction to German folk customs associated with springtime. Posted by the German Embassy in Ottawa, Canada: http://www.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

Mid-Lent Sunday (Laetare Sunday, Mothering Sunday, Rose Sunday)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian)
Date of Observation: March-April; fourth Sunday in Lent
Where Celebrated: England, Scotland, United States
Symbols and Customs: Golden Rose, Simnel Cakes
Colors: Rose-colored vestments are worn in Roman Catholic churches on this day, in place of the purple vestments worn on the other Sundays in Lent.
Related Holidays: Ash Wednesday, Easter, Lent


Mid-Lent Sunday is part of the Christian religious tradition. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

The name "Mid-Lent Sunday" is not really accurate, since the halfway point in the forty days of LENT falls several days before the fourth Sunday. This may reflect an earlier method of computing the duration of Lent, but it is more likely that this holiday was moved up to a Sunday because Sundays were generally exempt from the Lenten fast, and breaking the fast on a weekday represented too great a departure from the restrictions of the season. In any case, there is no shortage of alternate names for this day. In the Roman Catholic Church it is called Laetare Sunday, from the Latin word meaning "rejoice," which begins the Introit of the Mass. Up until 1969, when Roman Catholic reforms reinstated all Sundays as festivals, it was also known as Refreshment Sunday because the usual Lenten restrictions were relaxed.

In the Church of England, as well as in the Episcopal Church in the United States, the fourth Sunday in Lent is known as Mothering Sunday. This designation goes back to the ancient Roman Hilaria, held on the Ides of March (March 15) in honor of Cybele, mother of the gods. The Christians took this pagan festival, symbolic of the high esteem in which motherhood was held, and turned it into a day on which offerings were brought to the "Mother Church" instead of to private chapels. As the Christian calendar took shape, this Sunday festival was shifted from midMarch to mid-Lent, and the idea of visiting the Mother Church spilled over into the family. Children living away from home returned to visit their parents, and servants were given a day off so they could do the same. They brought gifts for their mothers, typically flowers and a SIMNEL CAKE . The fourth Sunday in Lent became a popular time for family reunions throughout England, and a young person who made such a visit was said to go "a-mothering." Mid-Lent Sunday

A popular dish served at these family get-togethers was furmety, a kind of sweet porridge made from wheat grains boiled in milk and spiced. In northern England and Scotland, the preferred dish was peas that had been fried in butter with salt and pepper and made into pancakes known as "carlings." For this reason, the day was sometimes referred to as Carling Sunday.


Golden Rose

Mid-Lent Sunday is also known as Rose Sunday. Beginning in the eleventh century, it was the custom for the Pope to carry a golden rose in his hand while celebrating Mass on this day. Although it was originally a single rose of normal size, since the fifteenth century it has been a cluster or branch of roses made of pure gold and set with precious stones. This custom may originally have been connected with the arrival of spring, when flowering branches were carried by the Pope from the Lateran Palace, his official residence in Rome, to Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, where he celebrated the Mass. It may also have something to do with the medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary, known as the "Rose of Sharon." The rose itself is considered a symbol of spiritual joy.

After being blessed by the Pope, the rose is sometimes sent to a particular parish in recognition of its special devotion to the Church, or to a distinguished person who has shown an unusual degree of religious spirit and loyalty. Then a new rose is made for the following year.

According to an old superstition, the Golden Rose brings bad luck to its owner. This probably dates back to the story of Joanna of Sicily, the first queen to whom the rose was sent. She was dethroned soon afterward and strangled by her nephew.

Simnel Cakes

The earliest simnel cakes were unleavened cakes or buns made of wheat flour and boiled. Sometimes they were marked with a figure of Christ or the Virgin Mary, which would seem to indicate that they were originally linked to a pagan celebration and then Christianized-like the hot cross buns originally eaten in honor of the pagan goddess Eostre, then later marked with a cross to make them more acceptable to the Christian clergy (see EASTER).

Over the years, the simple flat cake with currants and spices evolved into an elaborate raised cake with a saffron-flavored crust and a ring of almond paste on the top. The center was filled with plums, candied lemon peel, and other fruits, and the entire cake was tied up in a cloth and boiled for several hours. Then it was brushed with egg and baked, giving the crust a consistency not unlike that of wood, with an ornamental border that made it look like a crown. As early as the fourteenth century, it was the custom for young people to carry simnels as gifts for their mothers on Mid-Lent (or Mothering) Sunday. Simnel cakes were made at EASTER and CHRISTMAS as well.

There are a number of theories about the origin of the name "simnel." It may have come from the Latin simila, a very fine flour. Another theory is that the cakes were named after Lambert Simnel, a baker during the reign of Henry VII. There is also a legend about an elderly couple named Simon and Nelly. They combined the unleavened dough left over at the end of Lent with the plum pudding left over from Christmas. Then they got into an argument over whether the cake should be boiled or baked. They finally compromised and decided to do both. The result was the "Simon-Nelly" cake.

These cakes are still made in England and sent all over the world during Lent. In the towns of Devizes and Bury, the baking begins right after Christmas to allow time for delivery of cakes to people living abroad. Many emigrants left standing orders many years ago for simnels to be sent to them, and these orders have been renewed by their children and grandchildren.


Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Hole, Christina. English Custom & Usage. 1941. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Religious Holidays and Celebrations. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1966. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Metford, J.C.J. The Christian Year. New York: Crossroad, 1991. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992.


Ireland Now Mid-Lent Sunday

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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