Friday, June 13, 2008

A History of Father's Day

Father’s Day is one of the few holidays that is celebrated worldwide, across many countries, cultures, and religious traditions. Even countries like Cuba, Iran, and China – countries who are traditionally at odds with many of the traditions of Europe and the United States – have a day set aside during the year to honor fathers. Traditions include everything from gifts and cards (in the U.S. and much of Europe), to participation in “manly” activities such as hiking and beer drinking (Germany), to more religious-oriented celebrations (Italy and Roman Catholicism).

The United States was the first country in modern times to institute a day for fathers. Although several states have traditionally laid claim to the “first” Father’s Day (notably West Virginia), a Father’s Day celebrated in 1910 in Spokane, Washington, is generally considered to have given rise to the modern holiday.


Metaphorically, and not without irony, Father’s Day appears to have been birthed directly from Mother’s Day. Though days celebrating motherhood, maternity, and womanhood in general, had long graced calendars throughout the world, the modern Mother’s Day celebration did not begin in earnest until about 1908. Around that same time, a woman named Sonora Louis Smart Dodd first heard about the new Mother’s Day celebrations, and instead of thinking of herself (she was a mother, after all, and what are mothers most famous for if not thinking of others first?) she immediately began to formulate an idea for a similar celebration for fathers. Her own father, William Jackson Smart, had been an artilleryman in the Civil War, and had fathered six children, including Sonora. His wife, Sonora’s mother, had died giving birth to their last child, leaving her husband to raise six children, ranging in age from newborn to 16 years. From all accounts, William Smart was a respectable, loving, and devoted father, who spent the final years of his life being both mother and father to these young children, and seeing all of them – even the newborn – raised to adulthood.


As a result, when Sonora Smart Dodd first heard talk of Mother’s Day, she immediately began formulating an idea to honor her own father with a special celebration similar to Mothers’ Day. Lobbying the town council in Spokane, Sonora convinced them to institute a day celebrating fathers. She had urged them to use June 5th, as this was the anniversary of her own father’s birth, but the council decided a fixed calendar date would be easier to institute, and decided on the third Sunday in June. Starting in 1910 with a celebration event at the Spokane YMCA, Father’s Day began.


Other communities and states took very quick notice of Spokane’s celebration. Within just a few years, Spokane attracted the attention of President Woodrow Wilson, who appeared in person at the 1916 celebration. By 1924, President Coolidge established Father’s Day as a national event and encouraged all states to adopt programs like Spokane’s. To further ensure national unity, President Johnson, in 1966, proclaimed that Father’s Day should be on the third Sunday in June.

Despite its popularity and presidential encouragement, Father’s Day did not become an official national holiday until the Nixon administration in the early 1970’s.


Two years after Nixon signed the holiday into law, fate would have it that the World’s Fair was held in none other than Spokane, Washington, and Sonora Dodd, who was still alive at 92, was honored in person. A statue commemorating her achievements was erected at the YMCA in Spokane. As one website says, she is truly the “Mother of Father’s Day.”

Father’s Day was born from the simple but passionate love of a child for her father, as a way to demonstrate that love and deep affinity. So when we honor and remind our fathers of our love for them on Father’s Day, we are keeping with a tradition that goes back, quite literally, to the very origins of this special day. Father’s Day is perhaps one of the few holidays on our calendar that has managed to remain simple and pure, and true to its original intent. And that is quite an achievement in this post-modern age.

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