The Origins of Father's Day

Updated May 16, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

On Sunday, June 19, people in the USA, the United Kingdom, and around the world will honor their fathers, grandfathers, and father figures. Coinciding with Juneteenth celebrations, it is a special day in the calendars of many Americans.

Father’s Day History

A version of Father’s Day has been celebrated in some European countries for centuries. However, the history of Father’s Day in America does not stretch as far back, beginning in the early 20th century alongside the rise of Mother’s Day.

What Are the Historical Origins of Father’s Day?

The US’s first official service honoring fathers was held in July 1908 and was a consequence of a terrible and tragic event. In December 1907, hundreds of men (most of whom were fathers) were killed in America’s worst mining disaster at Monongah, West Virginia. 

A girl named Grace Golden Clayton, mourning her own father at the time of the tragedy, suggested a service be held to remember the men who had been lost. 

Though the service did not make a widespread or lasting impact, it’s widely considered to be the first Father’s Day celebration in America.

When Was Father’s Day Invented?

The seeds of Father’s Day as we know it were sown shortly after Clayton’s service, by a woman who believed fathers deserved a day of honoring and celebration, just as mothers did. 

The woman, Sonora Smart Dodd, and her five siblings had been raised solely by their father, a civil war veteran named William Jackson Smart, following the death of his wife in childbirth. 

Upon hearing about Anna Jarvis’s founding of Mother’s Day, she resolved to create a similar celebration for fathers. She persuaded the pastor of her church in Spokane, Washington to hold a special service on June 5, her father’s birthday. However, this was too soon for the church to make their preparations, so it was moved to the third Sunday of June, a date that has remained ever since. 

For several reasons, it was a long time before Father’s Day was widely accepted. Firstly, many people at the time viewed giving flowers and gifts as feminine and sentimental, thus men were often not keen on the idea.

Also, several presidents tried to make the celebration official but were resisted by Congress and some of the American public on the grounds that it would become too commercialized. Indeed, early efforts to promote it were backed by businesses who would profit the most, such as manufacturers of Father’s Day cards and Father’s Day gifts. Today, many view it as one of several ‘Hallmark holidays’ (named after the famous greeting card manufacturer), whose main purpose is to generate income for gift retailers.

President Woodrow Wilson and President Calvin Coolidge had both supported attempts to establish a day to honor fathers, the former speaking at a service in Spokane. However, it was not until 1966 when Lyndon B. Johnson made a presidential proclamation setting the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day. Finally, in 1972, President Richard Nixon made it an official national holiday.

Father’s Day Traditions Around the World

While many countries hold Father’s Day on the same date as the US, lots of others have different arrangements.

This year, Spain, Portugal, and Italy held Father’s Day on March 19. It’s the same day as the Catholic celebration of the Feast of St. Joseph. In the Bible, Joseph was the earthy father of Jesus, and the day is used to celebrate fathers and fatherhood.

In Germany, Father’s Day is celebrated on Ascension Day, the 40th and final day of Easter, when Jesus ascended to heaven according to Christians. It traditionally involved men heading off into the woods with a wagon filled with food, beer, and wine.

Why is Father’s Day Important?

Supporters of Father’s Day believe fathers deserve appreciation for the contributions they make to their families and to society, in the same way that mothers do. If Father’s Day encourages more people to show their appreciation to their father figures, then it’s worthwhile. 

Crucially though, there has to be real meaning in that recognition and gratitude. The empty sending of gifts achieves nothing except more profits for retailers. 

How to Celebrate Father’s Day

There’s no need for extravagant spending to show your love for your father figure. And certainly no need for thoughtless gifts such as novelty ties or socks. 

Why not simply make some time for your old man - clear some time in your busy schedule and put him top of your list.  A bit of time and effort goes a long way to making someone feel special.

Father’s Day Activities

There’s no need to spend a fortune, but if you want to splash out, at least make it personal and meaningful - a meal at his favorite restaurant, a bottle of his favorite liquor, tickets to his favorite team.

Of course, there’s plenty you can do without spending anything:

  • Play some games - old family favorites
  • Cook his favorite dinner
  • Watch his favorite movie
  • Reminisce on good old times
  • Learn about his family tree
  • Find out if there are any services and/or events in your community

Who Celebrates Father’s Day?

Of course, everyone’s circumstances are different. The paternal figure in our lives might not be our father. Father’s Day is also a time to celebrate grandfathers, step-fathers, foster-fathers - the man who has been there for us, whoever they are. 

Maybe you don’t need a designated day to show your love for your father figure. But if you are celebrating on Sunday June 19, you still have plenty of time to prepare. 

Why not impress your old man with your knowledge of the event’s history. Our handy timeline will help with that. You could even try one of our Father’s Day quizzes together, or share some heartfelt quotes about fathers.

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