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A Mistake-Free Mothering Sunday

Make your mother’s day this Mother’s Day

A mother and baby penguin

Whether you’re still firmly knotted to her apron strings, or your relationship is purely biological, you’ll know when Mother’s Day is looming.

If you currently have your pen hovering over a card you just picked up while getting your dinner in Tesco (one of the biggest sellers of cards for this occasion, retail fact fans), you will hopefully get the answers you need at the end of this article.

Feel free to go right ahead. I promise I won’t be upset.

Then, if you want to really impress Mother, come back and read the context.

When is Mother’s Day?

That depends on where you are reading this. Or, more specifically, where your mother will be celebrated.

In the UK, Mother’s Day is Sunday 19 March this year (2023). The same for those in the surrounding islands: Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. And, for Nigerian mothers. Naturally.

If you think that seems early, you’re right. In 2022, Mother’s Day was 27 March.

If you think that’s late, you’re right too. Mother’s Day was 14 March in 2021.

And if you think that seems about right, you are also correct. Mother’s Day was the same day (22nd by date) in 2020.

(Though if you fall in that last group, don’t be too quick to self-congratulate. It implies that was the last time you sent the obligatory flowers.)

Most years, Mother’s Day falls sometime in March. Occasionally it overlaps into April but that has only happened three times in the last 50 years. The next will be April 4, 2038.

It is always the fourth Sunday in Lent. For non-Christians, that’s three-and-a-half weeks after Pancake Day. The Easter cycle is always early or late. You never heard anyone say Easter is “on time this year.” It moves in line with the lunar cycle.

(Sorry Christians, Easter doesn’t mark the anniversary of Jesus’ crucifixion or resurrection.)

If you’re elsewhere in the world, that doesn’t matter. For most mothers in the US and another 100 countries, Mother’s Day always falls on the second Sunday in May.

In Thailand, it’s not until August. Indonesian mothers are celebrated just before Christmas.

For those remaining, it will be sometime between February and December. Never in September. Nor January. Those are the two months of the year when mothers are globally ignored.

Whose Day is Mother’s Day?

There’s no doubt the ubiquity of the day has been exacerbated by florists and card shops, but Mother’s Day was not the result of a brainstorm by Hallmark’s marketing department.

In the UK, Mothering Sunday goes back to the Middle Ages. The Mother related not to women and their offspring, but to the church where Christians took their baptism; their mother church. Believers would return to celebrate this church mid-way through Lent.

Most other dates are also related to specifics of religion. A number of countries use International Women’s Day (May 8th) to also honour their mothers.

The popularised form of Mother’s Day was founded by Anna Marie Jarvis in the United States. Jarvis’ mother was a social activist and the creator of Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in the 19th century.

After her death, Jarvis Jr. led the movement for a holiday to commemorate her mother’s life. A memorial took place on May 10, 1908, becoming the official date to celebrate all motherhood.

What we have now is a sort of bastardisation of the religious and the populist. A day for a mother, a church, all mothers, and all women.

Which may have led to the current grammatical conundrum.

Happy Grammar Day!

A mother and baby rhino

Apostrophe Position

So, should it be Happy Mother’s Day or Happy Mothers’ Day?

As we looked at in depth in Beat the CRAP Out of the Apostrophe, the apostrophe for possession goes immediately after the possessor.

We can clarify this by switching the phrase to start with the object and end with the subject. This is a day for / belonging to…

And therein lies the rub!

If the day is solely about your own mother (or your mother church), you could argue it is no different, grammatically, from her birthday. The day would belong to one mother. So, like "Sarah’s birthday", this would be "Mother’s Day."

But if it is a day for all mothers, as with Jarvis Snr.’s "Mothers' Day Work Club", it would be "Mothers’ Day."

Jarvis herself didn’t help matters much. We know the date related specifically to her own mother. But she wanted it to be a day for all mothers. However, in 1912 Jarvis trademarked the day as Mother's Day, specifically noting that “Mother’s” should be:

“a singular possessive, for each family to honour its own mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world."

This is the spelling used in any legislation or proclamation in America that concerns the day.

But being popular isn't the same as being right. As testified by Brexit, Boris Johnson, and Donald Trump.

Grammarian logic would say that though the day may celebrate the singular, it has been created for a group. Making the grammatically correct form "Mothers’ Day."

To cut a long story short, there is an argument to be had for using either form. You can always defend your own particular preference if required.

In my view, this is one of those cases where being on your high horse can be very lonely. Unless you’re very comfortable on Planet Smugsville, I would suggest you favour populism over rules, and stick with "Happy Mother’s Day".

Capitalisation 1 : The Name

When the words are combined, Mother’s Day is a given name. This makes it a proper noun. And proper nouns are always capitalised.

It is not mother’s day.

Nor is it Mother’s day.

And it should never be mother’s Day.

When written together, it is always Mother’s Day. (Without the bold which I am just using for the purposes of highlighting of course!)

Capitalisation 2 : The Salutation

Now you’re addressing the card, should it be Dear Mother or Mum or Ma, or Dear mother, mum, or ma. Other derivatives may apply.

These forms of address have your favoured term acting as a proper noun. You could replace them with the name of the recipient – Dear Sarah, Tina or Sue – but that would make you either rude or modern, depending on your personal view.

Again, proper nouns are always capitalised.

Making it Dear Mother or Dear Mum, etc.

Capitalisation 3 : The Message

The final touch is the personal message. The words you add to make her feel special.

You want to tell her you’re glad she is yours.

That she is the best in the world.

Or some other platitude.

In all these cases, the word you use is now a common noun.

Your mum may be one in a million, but she is still one in a million mums. Not one in a million Mums.

A mother is only a Mother when the Mother replaces her forename.

Impress Mother this (or any) Sunday

A mother and baby giraffe

For a happy mother, follow these rules:

  1. Buy a card. Handwrite it yourself. A text is fine in addition but not of its own. An emailed gif is a no-no.

  2. Capitalise and apostrophise the title: Happy Mother’s Day.

  3. Capitalise the address: Dear Mother.

  4. Proper case the message: You’re the mum of all mums.

And go visit.

At the very least, send flowers.

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