The history of Father’s Day: how it followed on the heels of Mother’s Day and why it took longer to be embraced in America.
I think we can all agree Mother’s Day tends to be one of the more important days in the calendar year. There’s just something about mama, and woe betide the child who forgets her on Mother’s Day.
Father’s Day, though, never has the same emotional energy—not because we think less of fathers, but because the day itself seems more like an effort not to leave dad out of the party. It is estimated, for example, that Mother’s Day sales outstrip Father’s Day by a factor of 10-1.
As it turns out this difference between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is part of the history of these modern ‘holidays’ in America. Though other nations and cultures have days to honor fathers and their legacy, the celebration of Father’s Day as we know it is thoroughly modern. Here are a few facts about the modern celebration of Father’s Day:
1) Mother’s Day was the first modern holiday to be invented and embraced in the 20th century. The founder was Anna Jarvis, who felt the heroic strivings of her mother after the Civil War needed to be celebrated. The goal was also to work towards the unification of the country after the return of the South to the Union: everyone has a mother and it was something to rally around. The idea of Mother’s Day was also quickly adopted politically, and was enshrined officially as a national holiday in 1914 by Woodrow Wilson—a mere six years after its first official celebration in 1908.
2) The origin of Father’s Day was purposefully designed to mimic Mother’s Day, though for different reasons. The holiday originated with Sonora Louise Smart Dodd, who wanted to honor her father for having raised six children after the premature death of his wife. The desire was much more personal for Dodd and, unlike Jarvis, she did not leverage the political tensions of post-war America. The first Father’s Day was celebrated in Spokane, Washington, in 1910—and the close association to June came from the birthday of Dodd’s father (June 5).
3) If Mother’s Day came in with a roar, Father’s Day came in with a whimper. President Wilson was supportive of Father’s Day, but only managed to raise a flag for the celebration in 1914. No executive action was taken to make it a national holiday.
4) In the 1930s there arose a movement to consolidate both holidays into an official Parent’s Day. Rallies were held annually in Central Park in New York in an attempt to spark this tradition. The origin, though, again appears to be an attempt to bring fathers onto equal footing with Mother’s Day.
5) Retailers were a major force in driving the demand for Father’s Day—often referring to it as a ‘Second Christmas’, or as an opportunity to buy dad all those neckties, pipes, golf clubs, and other ‘dad’ things they said he needed. June was a flagging month for sales in these days, so the commercialization of Father’s Day has always been part of its history.
6) In 1966 Lyndon Johnson issued a proclamation asking everyone to celebrate Father’s Day on the third Sunday in June. The celebration of Father’s Day was not made official, however, until it was permanently established by Richard Nixon in 1972.
7) In general, there has tended to be no religious or theological significance attached to Father’s Day, though early on there would be sermons that went along with some of the celebrations. Mother’s Day, by contrast, quickly became part of the celebration of the church—not that churches always centered the worship around the day, but certainly Mother’s Day was part of the story. This is part of the reason why churches tend to hold Mother’s Day celebrations, lunches, and public honoring of mothers, while Father’s Day tends to pass us by with less attention in our church communities.