Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Origins of Father’s Day

The Origins of Father’s Day

Father's Day is a national holiday in the United States and in Britain, celebrated on the third Sunday of June every year.

Often seen as something of a poor relation to “Mother’s Day” / “Mothering Sunday”, Father’s Day is a later but significant institution historically.

The story of Mother’s day, and why the date it differs in Britain and the USA can be read here.

In particular, if there was a pre-Reformation celebration of that name, it has left no trace in the sources, which is certainly an oddity. One would expect some mention of it, but there is none. The earliest historical reference seems to date from the 17th century, and seems to have been geographically localised in England and not widespread. There is no evidence of a medieval ceremony about “Mother Church”, and it may have in fact originated as part of the cult of “Mother Mary”.

Ronald Hutton notes that: “In America, Miss Anna Jarvis caused the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States to legislate in 1913 that the second Sunday in May should be set aside as a national day of remembrance of mothers.”

This was revived in England in the 1920s Constance Smith but linked to the fading practice of Mothering Sunday, which is why it has the earlier Lenten date.

But Father’s day began with a local tragedy. In December 1907, a mine explosion in the Fairmont Coal Company mines in Monongah killed more than 360 men, many of them fathers. Grace Golden Clayton, a resident of Fairmont, West Virginia, petitioned for a Father’s Day to remember that lost fatherhood. This was a one-time commemoration.

But that was not the end of the idea:

“A Spokane, Washington woman named Sonora Smart Dodd, one of six children raised by a widower, tried to establish an official equivalent to Mother’s Day for male parents. She went to local churches, the YMCA, shopkeepers and government officials to drum up support for her idea, and she was successful: Washington State celebrated the nation’s first state-wide Father’s Day on July 19, 1910. Slowly, the holiday spread.” (1)

Why did she do it? It was because she could not celebrate Mother’s Day. She heard a Mother’s Day sermon in 1909, and it reminded her of her own mother, who died in childbirth and left her husband to raise their six children alone.

 She thought his contribution to her life, as a single parent, should also be celebrated and was inspired to honour her father by proposing the idea for a Father’s Day celebration to local religious leaders. Dodd wanted the celebration to be held in June because it was her father's birth month. 

It is worth noting that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is all about a father and his sons; the mother is absent. Perhaps offstage, or perhaps that father too can be seen as emblematic of single parent families where a father brings up his children.

“Dodd asked the pastor at her local Methodist church to dedicate a day to honour fathers on July 5, 1908 -- the Sunday closest to the birthday of her late father, who was a Methodist preacher. On June 19, 1910, pastors throughout the city delivered sermons honouring fathers, and news quickly spread around the country. In the following years, similar celebrations were held in Chicago, Miami and Portland, Oregon.” (2)

“The movement grew for years but didn't gain national-event status until 1924 under former President Calvin Coolidge. He said it would "establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children" and "impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations” (3)

But there was resistance as well. As one historian noted, men “scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift-giving, or they derided the proliferation of such holidays as a commercial gimmick to sell more products–often paid for by the father himself.”

And there was a commercial element. In the Recession, struggling retailers and advertisers redoubled their efforts to make Father’s Day a “second Christmas” promoting goods such as neckties, hats, socks, pipes and tobacco, golf clubs and other sporting goods, and greeting cards.

But this didn’t really have an effect until the Second World War

“When World War II began, advertisers began to argue that celebrating Father’s Day was a way to honour American troops and support the war effort. By the end of the war, Father’s Day may not have been a federal holiday, but it was a national institution.” (1)

In 1972, in the middle of a hard-fought presidential re-election campaign, Richard Nixon signed a proclamation making Father’s Day a federal holiday at last.

Rev. David Weekley, pastor of St. Nicholas United Methodist Church in Hull, Massachusetts says that:

"For me, the importance of Father’s Day is to acknowledge the importance of close bonds, loving relationships and unconditional love that endures all the joys and pains, ups and downs of human relationships".

It is painful for him, because he is a transgender man, whose children have turned against him. But his own experience has caused him to see what the heart of Father’s day is about – about the unconditional love of a father for his children. He says:

"I cannot force my adult children to return the love I carry for them. As a father I continue to wait, much like another father about whom Jesus shared a parable.

"That story was about a prodigal son, but it includes the patient and eternally hopeful waiting and watching of an abandoned father. Jesus said this is how God loves us: unconditionally, no matter what. This is how I love my children as well, even the ones who have journeyed far from me in space and spirit."


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