How did Father's Day develop

Figure 1. Saint Joseph was associated with fathers, where he was seen as an example of fatherhood in bringing up Jesus.

Father's Day, like Mother's Day, does have some ancient traditions and roots, although most modern celebrations are influenced by the American-style celebration. Nevertheless, Fatherhood has been celebrated for centuries, often reflecting changing attitudes on the roles and duties of fathers. Fatherhood's importance has been reflected by religious and secular celebrations for centuries.

Early History

It is purported that the earliest celebration of a father dates to about 4,000 years ago, to ancient Babylon, where a boy, named Elmesu, created a type of card for his father out of clay that wished his father good health and a long life. While this might not relate to any special day celebrating fathers, it could suggest occasions may have been selected, perhaps without a specific calendar date, where fathers would be given well wishes from their children.[1]

In early Christian tradition, Saint Joseph, Jesus' father, was celebrated on March 19th (Figure 1). Some have speculated that the date was selected because it falls near March 20th, which is the equinox. The Sun may have been celebrated in parts of Europe around that time, prior to the arrival of Christianity, and a fatherly figure was equated with the sun. Joseph may have replaced the importance of the sun during the conversion of Europeans. However, this connection is not clear or agreed upon. In any case, the celebration of Joseph, both in European Catholic tradition, and that in the Middle East, such as through the Coptic and Orthodox churches, equated fatherhood with that of Joseph. Saint Joseph was celebrated for nurturing Jesus in his youth. Thus, fatherhood was seen as an important role to celebrate for its nourishment, spiritually and in sustenance, for children raised.

The tradition of celebrating Saint Joseph was spread throughout areas Spanish explorers went, particularly the New World. Some Catholic countries today have now made the celebration of Father's Day on March 19th, where the date is seen as being inspired by Saint Joseph. The Coptic church celebrates Saint Joseph on July 20th; for Egyptian Christians, July 20th is still a significant day and often is associated with celebrating fathers and fatherhood. This might date from the 5th century and could be among the earliest recorded celebrations in relation to officially celebrating fatherhood.[2]

Early Development in the United States

Figure 2. Father's Day card from 1941.

Father's Day origins in the United States derive from 1908, soon after Mother's Day was initiated by Anne Jarvis. Similar to Mother's Day, the origin relate to mourning of a loss of a father. This time, it was Grace Golden Clayton, from Fairmont, West Virginia, who was morning her father. However, she lost her father in a very tragic mining accident in December 1907, where 361 men died in a major incident in Monogah, West Virginia. She had asked the local pastor in Fairmont to celebrate not just her father but all fathers lost on July 5, 1908 in the mining accident. Unlike Jarvis, Clayton was far less vocal and the tradition did not spread far outside of Fairmont for some time.[3]

In 1910, another woman, Sonora Smart Dodd from Spokane Washington, was listening to a Mother's Day sermon when she wanted to have a Father's Day celebration. Mostly she felt mothers were getting more attention than fathers who had also sacrificed a lot or sometimes dealt with adversity in raising their children. In fact, her father was a war veteran who raised six children by himself after the death of his wife. He often worked long hours to provide for his family on his meager farm. Initially, she wanted to celebrate the day on June 5th, which was her father's birthday, but the Methodist Church she asked to preach about fathers and celebrate her father decided to make it the third Sunday of June for the official sermon and celebration on fatherhood. This created this date as the tradition in the United States.[4]

In the first few years after 1910, the idea of Father's Day spread throughout the country and prominent politicians such as William Jennings Bryant and members of congress proposed a bill to celebrate Father's Day in 1913. The bill was slow to come to the floor and Woodrow Wilson made a new push to celebrate it officially in 1916 by wanting it declared as a federal holiday. By then, however, it became evident that Mother's Day had become increasingly commercialized. Congress feared it was simply making a commercial holiday or benefit rather than a real holiday to celebrate fathers. Members of Congress killed the proposal and the idea faded again until President Coolidge proposed it being celebrated by Americans in 1924. Recognizing the problems with commercialism in Mother's Day, he simply recommended people celebrate Father's Day in their own private way or with their communities.[5]

Meanwhile, Dodd continued promoting the idea of Father's Day, where the third Sunday of June had become the holiday people celebrated. Similar to Mother's Day, many businesses that saw a potential benefit from Father's Day did begin to help Dodd in promoting Fathers Day in the 1930s. An association of businesses even formed to promote the holiday. Perhaps the Great Depression helped create incentive for them to replicate the success of Mother's Day by this time promoting male-oriented gifts such as pipes. However, this was probably off-putting to Americans who were not impressed with how Mother's Day became so commercialized or simply became fatigued. Thus, Father's Day did not gain in much popularity in the 1930s-1940s, although it was celebrated and promoted throughout the country (Figure 2).[6]

Today's Father's Day in the United States

In 1957, Main Senator Margaret Smith reintroduced a proposal to officially celebrating Father's Day through a bill from Congress. Once again, other priorities and lack of clear benefit led to the bill being stalled. Lyndon Johnson, in 1966, however re-energized the Father's Day movement by proclaiming the third Sunday of June the 'official' day to celebrate fatherhood in the United States. This time, this helped to put the issue on the agenda of Congress, although it still took another six years before finally President Nixon signed in 1972 the bill that made Father's Day a national holiday.[7]

Interestingly, while consumers and even Congress were always wary that Father's Day would become another commercial excuse for consumerism, Dodd, one of the key promoters of Father's Day, never had a problem with this. Unlike Jarvis, she saw that she had to use strong allies such as industry to promote her idea of Father's Day, otherwise it stood little chance. In effect, she felt that it was simply realistic to expect industry to do something that benefits itself if she was going to get what she wanted and have the day she started as the official Father's Day. Although, unlike Jarvis, there was no active movement fighting the commercialization of Father's Day, ironically it is Father's Day that is arguably today not as commercialized as Mother's Day. There might be a few reasons for this. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons is simply that people are fatigued with all the May spending, particularly Mother's day. Nevertheless, it still has developed into something of a holiday with a lot commercialism. [8]


Celebration and appreciation of fatherhood can be seen from records as early as 2000 BC. More official celebrations become evident in early Christianity, when Joseph was seen as the example of fatherhood throughout Catholic Europe and the Orthodox Middle East and North Africa. Later, in the United States, new traditions formed that have since influenced most of the world's celebrations of Father's Day, although like Mother's Day many different dates are used. In the United States, it was the fear of commercialization that limited its early influence. It took commercial promotion and a reawakening in the 1950s and 1960s that eventually put Father's Day in a more official path as a holiday.


  1. For more on the card from Elmesu, see: Colo, Alfred. (2012). American Holidays. Xlibris Corporation, pg. 50.
  2. For more on Joseph and his feast day in relation to Father's Day, see: Raman, V. (2005). Variety in Religion and Science: Daily Reflections. iUniverse. New Yor., pg. 234.
  3. For more on the earliest modern Father's Day in the United States, see: Hawes, J. M., & Shores, E. F. (2001). The family in America: an encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.
  4. For more on Dodd's efforts, see: Colo 2012: 49
  5. For more on the efforts in trying to make Father's Day an official holiday, see: LaRossa, Ralph. (1997). The Modernization of Fatherhood: A Social and Political History. University of Chicago. Chicago.
  6. For more on the early commercialization efforts in relation to Father's Day, see: Cross, Gary. (2000). An All-consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America. Columbia University Press. New York, pp. 52
  7. For more on Margaret Smith's efforts and the passing of Father's Day by Congress, see: Coleman, M. & Ganong, L.H. (2014). The Social History of the American Family: An Encyclopedia. SAGE Publications.
  8. For more on the modern economics of Father's Day, see: LaRossa 1997: 185

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