Father’s Day: an origin story

Becky explores the origins of Father’s Day, including a little-known link to funeral directors...

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Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in Horsham, West Sussex in 1855. The company now has an additional three offices across the county in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint, and continues to employ local people who are experts in the services their communities require. Today, Community Co-Ordinator, Becky, considers the meaning of Father’s Day, which much of the international community marks this weekend…

Back in March, I wrote about Mother’s Day for the first time since our blog began, sharing our reasons for previously remaining quiet on the occasion. As funeral directors, we are aware that our message is often difficult for some people to hear, and through respect for those who would rather not be reminded of a painful or uncomfortable occasion, we decided that we would leave others free to speak.

As the world has changed so much during the last year and a half, I knew that we could change too. I’m pleased that we’re now able to face these additional challenges, and having covered Mother’s Day, it only feels right to speak about Father’s Day too.

As with Mother’s Day, the root of Father’s Day links to religion – it’s been recognised within the Catholic faith since at least 1508, when it was celebrated on St Joseph’s Day in March. Father’s Day as we know it today originated in the US, though there were initially two different campaigns on opposite sides of the country, and both origins retain links to the church.

The campaign which was ultimately successful in getting Father’s Day nationally-recognised was organised by Sonora Smart Dodd, who lived in Spokane, Washington. Sonora was the eldest daughter of William Jackson Smart, and had been born in Arkansas. William was a Civil War veteran, and he and his wife Ellen had six children. Unfortunately, Ellen died whilst giving birth to their sixth child, leaving William to raise the family with the help of Sonora, who was 16 at the time.

Some years later, in 1909, Sonora heard a sermon about Anna Jarvis’s Mother’s Day, and raised the issue of there being a commensurate Father’s Day with her church leaders. She felt strongly about this, due to her father’s status as both a veteran and a single-parent. Sonora had hoped that the celebration would take place on 5th June, William’s birthday, but the church leaders regarded there as being too little time to prepare, and agreed to the event being on the third Sunday of June instead. The first Father’s Day was duly marked on 19th June 1910.

Although the occasion was a success locally, it didn’t take off initially, partly because Sonora by now had her own young family. She also left Spokane during the 1920s to study at the Art Institute of Chicago and establish herself as a fashion designer in Hollywood. However, campaigning ultimately resumed, and was finally successful when President Johnson issued a proclamation in favour of the event in 1966, with President Nixon signing it into law in 1972.

The other main Father’s Day campaign was organised by Grace Golden Clayton of Mononagh, West Virginia. Her town had experienced a disaster, when in December 1907, 361 men were killed in a coal mining incident. Of those whose lives were lost, 250 were fathers, and Grace suggested to her pastor that a memorial be held to remember them. Grace was also successful in securing her preferred date – 5th July 1908, which was the Sunday closest to her own father’s birthday. Although the event was a success and something Grace felt strongly about, it hadn’t been promoted beyond the town’s local area, so didn’t gain the traction and attention that Sonora’s actions did just a year later.

A further interesting fact about Sonora and her family is that her husband, John Bruce Dodd, helped to found a funeral home in Spokane. Originally established as Ball and Dodd Funeral Home – as John had founded the business with two brothers, Howard and Elwood Ball – it still exists today in Spokane, although it’s no longer independently-owned.

It’s important to bring awareness to the fact that Father’s Day is a nuanced issue. As all families are different, so too are the relationships within them, and reasons for finding the occasion hard. This weekend, I’ll be thinking of those who struggle or have struggled with infertility, or other grievances around the journey to parenthood; those who have suffered the loss of a baby or child; those who experience a difficult relationship, or even lack of relationship with their father; and those who are part of an extended dynamic including step-parents and grandparents.

In parallel to what I’ve noticed about Mother’s Day, commercial brands have been increasingly aware that people may wish not to receive communications about Father’s Day. This year, I saw this begin earlier than I ever have, showing that consideration and impact has increased, which is fantastic.

However, one of the things which still disappoints me – and may also make people feel let down or inadequate – is the amount of toxic masculinity and promotion of stereotypes around Father’s Day. I see the same issue around Mother’s Day, but I find it to be heightened with Father’s Day. By this I mean the minimisation of interests. The lack of recognition of diversity. It’s been happening for many years now, and it disappoints me that we’ve got as far as 2021 and the situation has yet to improve.

What I mean by this is the perpetuation of identities such as ‘Golf Dad’ and ‘Car Dad’ and, even worse, ‘Beer Dad’. Cards are covered in this imagery, and you’re hard pushed to find one which doesn’t involve some combination of sport, vehicles, and barbecues. Perhaps it’s not helped by Father’s Day occurring in the northern hemisphere’s summer, and the ripeness for cross-promotion and bundling of gifts and activities. Either way, it’s reductive.

Families are becoming increasingly diverse, but our parent-related gifting still has a way to go in order to catch up. It’s not just activities either, but dietary choices too – certain cultures don’t consume particular types of meats, or alcohol (in addition for there being further reasons for being triggered by the linking of fatherhood and drinking culture). It’s clear to me that companies seeking to profit from the occasion could be doing much more to be inclusive, and therefore more considerate of our feelings around Father’s Day.

It’s clear to me that the women who proposed Father’s Day meant for it to honour the men they valued so dearly. Over a century on from their efforts, I think it’d be great to see those origins remembered, and gestures made to thank and appreciate the men – whether they are our fathers or father figures – who continue to support us today. If your Dad is yearning for a new golf club, then that may be as appropriate as the advertising companies suggest, but if there are other things that he would appreciate, or which would help your relationship with him, don’t be afraid to do what is right for you.


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Written by Becky Hughes

Community Co-Ordinator

June 16, 2021

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