Mother's Day as an official celebration in this country is of relatively recent origin. It was declared a national holiday in 1914, making this coming Sunday the 71st anniversary of a day marked ever since by gifts, flowers and fancy dinners.

But the tradition of setting aside a day to honor mothers can actually be traced as far back as the days of the ancient Greeks, who dedicated an annual spring festival to Rhea, the mother of Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera and Hestia. Perhaps it was some vestige of this pagan celebration that inspired the early Christians to set aside the fourth Sunday of Lent to honor Christ's mother, Mary. On this day, later called Mothering Sunday, the devout traditionally honored the Virgin with gifts and flowers.

As time went on, Mothering Sunday was looked upon as an opportunity to honor not only Mary, but all mothers. In England it became traditional for the eldest son to give his mother a special gift on this day. That gift was often a rich and fruity simnel cake, and the custom was commemorated by Robert Herrick, the 17th-century poet:

And I'll to thee a simnel bring

'Gainst thou goest a-mothering;

So that when she blesses thee,

Half the blessing thou'st give me.

Simnel cakes varied considerably from one region of England to the next. In Shrewsbury, for example, a simnel was made by enclosing candied fruits in a thick crust of saffron bread. The Devizes simnel, on the other hand, was more cakelike and shaped into a star. One legend has it that Shropshire simnels were made by boiling a cake batter in a cloth for several hours and then baking that same cake for an additional hour. The resultant simnel -- according to observers of a rival region -- was so hard that the mother who received it mistook the cake for a footstool.

Although the sentiment behind the American Mother's Day celebration closely resembles its English counterpart, it appears that our holiday developed quite independently from the Mothering Sunday tradition in England. In fact, the celebration of Mothering Sunday had virtually died out in England by the early part of this century and was probably unknown to Anna M. Jarvis, the Pennsylvania woman whose determined efforts are largely responsible for American mothers being honored on one special Sunday every year.

Jarvis, an unmarried school teacher devoted to her family, determined to create a national day for honoring mothers shortly after her own mother died in 1905. She campaigned vigorously for a number of years, enlisting the aid of sympathetic friends, politicians and clergymen. She started by arranging a special service to honor her mother in a local church and on that Sunday, all attendees were given carnations -- her mother's favorite flower and a flower that still has associations with Mother's Day.

In 1910, the governor of West Virginia proclaimed Mother's Day a state holiday and soon afterward the states of Oklahoma and Washington followed suit. By 1912, the movement had gained so much momentum that a Mother's Day International Association had been formed and on May 7, 1914, a bill was introduced into Congress resolving that the second Sunday of each May be set aside as Mother's Day.

The proclamation, read by President Wilson when he declared Mother's Day a national holiday, contained the following words: "Whereas the service rendered by the American mothers is the greatest source of the country's strength and inspiration . . . "

Mother's Day in this country isn't associated with any particular homemade treat, so why not borrow from the Mothering Sunday tradition and prepare a simnel cake or one of the other old-fashioned English desserts that follow: SIMNEL CAKE

This rich, fruity cake is festive and easy to make.

1 3/4 cups sugar

3/4 cup (6 ounces) sweet butter at room temperature

4 large eggs

2 cups unbleached flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup currants

3/4 cup mixed candied peel

5 ounces almond paste (available, sweetened, in cans)

Confectioners' sugar

Marzipan fruits (optional garnish)

Cream the sugar and butter together until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift the flour with the salt and remove about 1/4 cup to use for dredging the currents and candied peel. Add the remaining flour to the batter in 3 separate batches, mixing well after each addition. Fold in the currants and candied fruits and any flour left over from dredging.

Grease a 9-inch pie plate well and line the bottom with baking parchment. Pour half the batter into the plate. Roll or press the almond paste into a 9-inch circle between 2 pieces of floured waxed paper. (If the paste is too dry, spin it in a food processor with a few drops of water; if the paste sticks to the waxed paper after rolling it, chill for a few moments). Remove top sheet of waxed paper and set the exposed side of almond paste on the batter. Remove remaining sheet of waxed paper and top with the remaining batter. Bake at 300 degrees until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 1/2 hours. Cool on a rack. To remove from the pie plate, run a knife along the edges and turn out. Peel off the baking parchment and sprinkle the top with confectioners' sugar. Decorate with marzipan fruits, if desired. Adapted from Dorothy Spicer's "Feast-Day Cakes From Many Lands." ORANGE AND APPLE PIE

This pie was popular in Elizabethan England. The delicate hint of bitterness provided by the orange peel contrasts memorably with the mellow flavor of the baked apples.

9-inch unbaked pie pastry shell and lid

5 medium juice oranges

1 cup honey

Juice of 1/2 small lemon

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

Generous 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground ginger

4 medium apples, peeled, cored, and sliced

2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar dissolved in 1 tablespoon rose water

Bake pie shell at 425 degrees for 10 minutes. Let cool. Slice oranges as thinly as possible, discarding the seeds.

Combine the honey and lemon juice with 3 cups of water in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil. Add the orange slices. Cover, reduce the heat, and simmer about 2 hours or until the peel is limp and easily chewed. Drain the orange slices and set them aside. Discard the cooking liquid.

In a bowl, combine the brown sugar, salt and spices. Add the apple slices and toss to coat. Place a layer of apple slices in the pie shell, then a layer of orange slices. Repeat with the remaining fruit. Place the pastry lid over the filling. Crimp the edges and slash the lid in a few places to allow steam to escape. Paint the lid with rose-water icing.

Bake the pie at 350 degrees until nicely browned, about 1 hour. Adapted from a recipe published in "The Good Huswives Handmaid For Cookerie," 1588. BUTTERED ORANGES

(4 servings)

If clouds were orange and could be eaten, this is what they'd taste like.

3 large, sweet juice oranges

2 large eggs plus 4 yolks, beaten

2 to 3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons sweet butter, cut into bits

Finely grate the rinds of the oranges. (Be careful not to grate the white pith beneath the rind, as it is bitter.) Set aside.

Squeeze the oranges until you have 1 cup of juice. Combine the orange juice, eggs and sugar to taste. (The amount of sugar depends on the sweetness of the juice.) Pour the mixture through a fine-meshed strainer into the top of a double boiler. Stir in the grated rind.

Set the pot into hot but not boiling water. Cook over moderate heat, whisking, until the custard thickens. When the whisk makes ribbons on the surface, remove from the heat. Place the pot in a large bowl of cold water. Whisk in the butter, one bit at a time, until it melts.

Spoon small portions of custard into 4 sherry or wine glasses. Chill before serving. Adapted from a recipe in N. Bailey's, "Dictornarium Domesticum," 1736.