BUCKHANNON — For countless years, people all across the world have taken a day to commemorate their fathers, celebrating the joys of fatherhood and everything fathers do. Though the holiday is imbedded in our culture as a perennial tradition, its history and origins are not as well-known as those of Mother’s Day.
Father’s Day is celebrated across the world on various dates in more than 111 countries. In Catholic countries of Europe, it is celebrated on March 19 as Saint Joseph’s Day, wife of the Virgin Mary and legal father of Jesus Christ; this practice has existed since medieval times. A related, centuries-old celebration from the Orthodox Church is the Sunday of the Forefathers: taking place on the second Sunday before Christmas (which takes place in January in the Orthodox tradition), it commemorates the mortal ancestors of Jesus, including Adam and Abraham, Mary’s ancestors and various other prophets.
In America, Father’s Day was inaugurated in the early 20th century as a complement to Mother’s Day. On June 19, 1910, in Spokane, Washington, a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd organized a celebration at the local YMCA. After being inspired by a sermon regarding Anna Jarvis’ Mother’s Day, she told her pastor that a similar holiday should exist for fathers. Dodd’s own father, William Jackson Smart, was a Civil War veteran and single father who had raised six children in Spokane. She initially suggested June 5, her father’s birthday, but the local pastors’ alliance did not have enough time to prepare sermons for the event, and so it was deferred to the third Sunday in June.
Though the 1910 celebration went over well, the holiday did not have much success at first. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson visited Spokane to speak at the celebration and wanted to make it an official holiday, but Congress resisted, fearing that it would become commercialized. In the 1920s, Dodd went to study at the Art Institute of Chicago and her celebration faded into obscurity, even in Spokane. A decade later, she returned home and started raising awareness of the holiday at a national level, finding eager assistance from manufacturers of ties, tobacco pipes and other traditional presents to fathers.
Americans were resistant to accept the Father’s Day holiday, viewing it as another attempt to replicate the commercial success of Mother’s Day, which, of course, it would eventually see. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation recognizing the holiday and placing it on the third Sunday in June; later, President Richard Nixon officially signed the holiday into law in 1972.
Notably, a service that would come to be associated with Father’s Day was held on July 5, 1908, in Fairmont, in what is now the Central United Methodist Church. It was organized by Grace Golden Clayton, who was mourning her father’s death when, in December 1907, the Monongah Mining Disaster occurred nearby, killing 361 men and leaving around 1,000 children fatherless. Clayton suggested to her pastor that he should honor those fathers lost, 250 of the total casualties, and they picked a date nearest to Clayton’s father’s own birthday. Just two months prior, in Grafton, Anna Jarvis had celebrated the life of her deceased mother.
Though this “Father’s Day” event occurred two years before the Spokane Father’s Day celebration, it did not have an impact outside of the Fairmont area, as no official proclamation of the holiday was ever made. The celebration of Independence Day overshadowed it, and the church and city council where so overwhelmed as to not think of promoting the event, which was not celebrated again for many years. Clayton herself was also a quiet woman, keeping to herself and rarely talking about the event to others. The original sermon given to honor the miners was not reproduced in press and has been lost to history.