I haven't been a pious Christian since I was 6, Lent only means one thing to me, I will have a birthday soon. Easter wasn't something I particularly looked forward to, and I was surprisingly unimpressed with the overly sweet milk chocolate eggs the easter bunny brought me. Nor did I enjoy the big family gatherings as they always resulted into political debates, and dispute. It is most certainly the reason for my aversion to politics and politicians.
This year I'm celebrating the day of my birth, the day before mothering sunday. It is a day not connected to any other mothers day traditions in Europe or America. Mothering sunday was the day that the girls working as domestic servants or apprentices were given the day off to visit their mother, bringing her gifts, like perhaps a Simnel cake. Why it was a custom at mid-lent is not clear, maybe because at easter the servants couldn't be missed in the large manor houses who would most probably have large Downton Abbey style parties. Another theory is that of coming home to visit the mother church, which appeared to be believed an important custom in pre-Reformation England.
On Mothering Sunday, the fasting rules were put on hold for the day resulting in the day also being known as a Refreshment Sunday, the other one being celebrated during Advent.
The earliest of references to a Simnel cake I was able to find and verify was in a poem of Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
A Ceremonie in Glocester.I’le to thee a Simnell bring,Gainst thou go’st a mothering,So that, when she blesseth thee,Half that blessing thou’lt give me.
Here states the tradition that the cake was given when people went Mothering, what is now assumed as going to visit their mother for mothering sunday but what well could have been a reference to the pre-Reformation tradition of visiting the mother church.
At some time along the way of time the legend of Simon and Nell appeared. A story most people have heard from their grandparents.
This legend tells the tale of an old Shropshire couple Simon and Nell. Nell had some leftover unleavened dough for bread making during Lent. Simon reminded her of the last of the christmas plum pudding as the Lenten dough would make a tasteless treat. Nell as a frugal woman didn't want to waste a thing in the kitchen so it was decided to create a cake for when their children would return home for mothering.
Then a dispute arose about the method of baking the cake which Simon wanted to mould and bake while Nell was convinced it should be boiled. Though some versions tell the tale the other way around and claim that Simon wanted it to be boiled since it was a pudding, and puddings should be boiled.
To solve the disagreement which resulted in throwing a baking stool at Simon, it was decided that the cake should first be boiled, and then baked. And from then on the cake was named SimNell.
A beautiful piece of English Folk lore but it is not sure when the legend was first told.