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The Surprising History of Father's Day

Fathers

By Emily Basil

Every year, we set aside the third Sunday in June in celebration of fatherhood. We honor our dads with barbecues, picnics, cards, and gifts. In 2016, U.S. consumers are predicted to spend over 12 billion dollars on Father's Day, making it a powerful commercial success. But the surprising truth is, Father's Day has only been officially recognized in the United States since 1972, nearly 60 years after Mother's Day became a holiday. The story of Father's Day is, in fact, one of a nearly century-long struggle to recognize dads' contributions, often by the daughters who loved them and worked to make the holiday what we have today.  

Historical Roots

Just as mothers have been celebrated throughout the centuries, fathers have been honored by various cultures in the past. In medieval Europe, the feast day of St. Joseph was celebrated to honor fathers in general, while Mothering Day was set aside to honor mothers. Interestingly, the earliest example of a father's celebration may be nearly 4000 years old, making it older than any recorded celebration of mothers. Archaeologists have found an ancient Babylonian tablet, signed by a dutiful son named Elmesu, wishing his father health and longevity. We can imagine that the tablet functioned much like the greeting cards we give our own dads each year.

Father's Day Failures

It's difficult to pin down the first time Father's Day was celebrated in the modern United States, because so many people tried, and failed, to start the holiday. The first recorded occasion was on July 5, 1908, in Fairmont, West Virginia. There, a woman named Grace Golden Clayton held an event at her church to honor all fathers, perhaps inspired by the loss of her father, and others in the community, in a terrible mining tragedy. However, the tradition wasn't promoted, didn't catch on, and was not celebrated beyond the town of Fairmont.  Miles away, in 1911, reformer Jane Addams suggested a day be set aside to honor fathers be in her hometown of Chicago, but was turned down by city officials. Others, including J.J. Berringer and Harry C. Meeks, also tried and failed to begin a national Father's Day tradition.

The Origins of Modern Father's Day 

Another attempt was made in 1910, in Spokane, Washington, when Sonora Smart Dodd held a Father's Day celebration inspired by Mother's Day and by her own father. This event did catch on and spread to pastors throughout the city of Spokane and beyond, each preaching on the subject of fatherhood on the third Sunday of June. Even Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge visited Spokane and encouraged the celebration of Father's Day. Ms. Dodd stopped promoting the holiday during the 1920's, while she was away at school but began again just in time for the Great Depression. This time, manufacturers and retailers joined the campaign to encourage the celebration of Father's Day, hoping to buoy their sales with dad-themed merchandise.

Dad's Day Doubters

Perhaps because of these commercial ties, many Americans initially resisted the push for a national Father's Day holiday. They viewed the occasion cynically, as yet another attempt to get consumers to buy unnecessary products. Skeptics, especially in Congress, had been against the holiday since Dodd's first events in Spokane and opposed the attempts to recognize it at a federal level. Some suggested an alternative holiday, called Parent's Day, meant to replace both of the holidays for mothers and fathers. For decades, Congress fought attempts to make Father's Day a national holiday, but it began to gain popular support after World War II. Reframed as a masculine holiday, in recognition of fathers who were often veterans, Father's Day spread nationally. 

Finally, Federal Recognition

By 1956, the United States Congress had finally come around to recognizing Father's Day, passing a joint resolution to that end. Still, it took another decade until President Lyndon Johnson officially proclaimed the third Sunday in June to be a national holiday, and another 6 years for Nixon to permanently establish it as a holiday. In spite of all these years of struggle, there was a happy ending at last for Father's Day supporters, and, best of all, Sonora Dodd herself lived long enough to see it happen, dying in 1978 at the age of 96. 

Father's Day Today

Now, Father's Day is one of the most successful and enjoyable summer holidays. It is celebrated around the world, with over 70 countries choosing the third day of June to commemorate their dads. Recent polls suggest that nearly three-quarters of Americans celebrate the holiday, honoring fathers and father figures alike. Popular gifts include electronics, sporting gear, and clothes. But the most common gift for Father's day? Much like in ancient Babylon, it is still the greeting card, perhaps proving after all that some things never change. 

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