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Day of the Dad

June 20, 2010

Random Fact is both an optimist and a cynic and decided to mark Father’s Day by researching the origin of this holiday. The cynic expected the hands of the greeting card, necktie and gadget industries were involved. The optimist was pleased to learn differently.

The modern observance got its start in Spokane, Washington, by a woman who had been raised by her father after her mother died. Sonora Smart Dodd was in church, listening to a Mother’s Day sermon, when the idea struck. She held the first Father’s Day celebration on June 19, 1910, in Spokane. The first Mother’s Day observances took place only two years earlier.

The idea of Mother’s Day was as popular as fresh apple pie, and in 1912, the Mother’s Day International Association formed to promote official recognition of the holiday. This happened quickly. In 1914, a proclamation by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson decreed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day and gave it permanent recognition.

National recognition for the guys was more tricky. Members of the U.S. Congress were concerned that official recognition of fathers would look self-serving and appear that the all-male hub of political power was patting itself on the back. Random Fact finds this amusing for so many reasons. President Wilson and his family celebrated the observance personally in 1916 and, in a bold stroke for state’s rights, wrote to all the state governors and invited them to embrace Father’s Day to help “establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children, and also to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations.”

It wasn’t until 1972 that Father’s Day got national recognition when President Nixon established a permanent national observance, perhaps, snarks Random Fact, to divert the attention of the populace from other matters.

Historians and anthropologists have tried to trace more ancient sources of honoring mothers and fathers with mixed success. Again, the path for mothers was easier to find.

Some point to ancient Greece and spring festivities that honored Rhea, the mother of the gods. The spread of Christianity put a new face on the idea, and early Christians in England celebrated a day to honor Mary. Religious leaders expanded the holiday to include all moms, and the 4th Sunday of Lent became Mothering Sunday. Wealthy English folk even gave their servants the day off.

The observance did not immediately follow English colonists who came to America. They stopped the tradition because they didn’t have enough time. Social activist Julia Ward Howe first suggested a day to honor mothers, loosely patterned on Mothering Day, after the Civil War.

One account of early attempts to honor fathers cites Elmesu, a Babylonian boy who carved a card made of clay that wished his father good health and long life. This was more than 4,000 years ago. A bit later, ancient Romans honored fathers every February – with one catch. They had to be dead.

Check out this story in The New York Times about dads being as stressed as moms these day.

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