Any of several sweet, decorated, cakes made to celebrate Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent (three weeks before Easter Sunday).
This practice is known at least since E. Collins 'Miscellany' of 1762: "Zee Dundry's Peak Lucks like a shuggard Motherin-Cake" and, although described from time-to-time in England is far more prevalent in Ireland and Scotland.
William Hone's "The every-day book; or, Everlasting calendar of popular amusements" of 1826 has "It is still a custom on Mid-Lent Sunday in many parts of England, for servant to carry cakes as presents to their parents; and in other parts, to visit their mother for a meal of furmity, or to receive cakes with her blessing. This is called going a-mothering."
1887, F. T. Havergal, 'Herefordshire Words & Phrases'; "It is still the custom to use or send away mothering cakes, which are made specially at Hereford and towns in this county in large quantities." (OED)
From the 'Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette' - Thursday 26 March 1868...
In many parts of England, especially in Wilts, Somerset, and Gloucestershire, the fourth Sunday Lent, commonly called Midlent, is observed festival under the above title and servants and apprentices are then allowed to visit their parents and friends, to partake of regale of wheat furmity, and mothering-cake, the last of which is analogous to the twelfth-cakes of London, sugared and ornamented on the top.
On the day previous, the pastrycooks and confectioners in Bristol, Bath, Gloucester, and other considerable places, decorate their shops with evergreens, flowers, and various devices of coloured lamps, which are lighted in the evening, to attract customers for their mothering-cakes, after the manner of the London pastrycooks at the festival of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Day, to which, however, the country-folks pay no attention. In addition to the furmity and cake, quarter of lamb is provided for the Sunday's dinner, by such as can afford it, the remains of which are distributed among their more needy neighbours, who cannot purchase for themselves.
The day is, indeed, season of festivity, benevolence, and mutual congratulation. As is usual in such cases, the parties adhering to this ancient observance, can rarely give a reason for it, because they are ignorant of its origin.
This is to be found in the practice of our Roman Catholic ancestors, going in procession, on Midlent Sunday, from the most distant parts of their parishes, to visit the Mother Church ; and, according to the custom of the times, when large assemblages of the people were drawn together, the day, though nominally set apart for religious service, was devoted to festivity and mirth. Instances such perverted institutions are to be met with in the saints' festivals, the wakes, the revels, the church-ales, and fairs, of which many are still kept up in country villages, to say nothing of the more diffused and general riotous festivities of Lent, Easter, Whitsuntide, and Christmas.
But it may be inquired, whence the particular appropriation of Frumity and plumcake to this day It to be feared they are of heathen origin, engrafted during a corrupt and dark period, upon the stock of Christianity. The Greeks had great goddess, called Damater by the Dorians, and Demeter by the lonians ; she was the reputed mother of the gods, and cakes of a particular kind were at certain seasons dedicated to her. By the Babylonians she was called Mylilta, and similar offerings were made to her in Chaldea.* The Romans called her Vesta, and the Saxons Eostur, or Eostre. The latter sacrificed to her in the month of April, which commenced with the new moon nearest to the vernal equinox, and was called Eostre month, whence the name of the modern festival of Easter, which occurs on the first Sunday after the full of the same moon.
Agreeably to this ancient practice, we find Midlent, or Mothering Sunday, fixed for the Sunday nearest to the change of the paschal or Easter moon, and not, where its title of Midlent would lead to expect it, on the third Sunday in Lent, which wants but a day of one half of the forty days' continuance of that season. The mothering cake can, therefore, be only considered as a relic of the ancient sacrifice to Eostur, and analogous to the cake offered to Damater, or Mylitta, with whom also Diana, or the moon, is considered by mythologies as synonymous, and to whom also cakes were offered or dedicated by the Greeks and Romans.
But Ceres was also another personification of the same idol, to whom corn, and especially wheat, was sacred ; and hence the wheat-furmity the Midlent revels. The lamb is evidently derived from the Jewish paschal sacrifice, and seems to have been superadded to the festival in age when superstition was mistaken for religion, and Pagan, Mosaic, and Christian rites were confounded one heterogeneous mixture.
The cake offered to Mylitta was called and had upon the representation of two horns, like a crescent, or new moon. The Greeks supposed it to be a substitute for oxen; but it was type of the ark, the great mother of the human race after the deluge. Have the boun of Chaldea and the hot cross-bun of Christendom any relationship? "