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The Origin of Father’s Day – Born Out of One Daughter’s Wish to Honor Her Single Dad

Father’s Day, celebrated on the third Sunday of June, took decades to gain national recognition.
Carolina Avendano
Carolina is a Canada-based writer and journalist who enjoys learning and sharing information about how to lead a meaningful life. She is passionate about traditional culture, handmade crafts, the connection between humans and nature, and human rights.
Published: June 15, 2024
From small beginnings, Father's Day gradually became an international holiday to honor the traditional head of the household. (Image: Juan Pablo Serrano via Pexels)

Sonora Smart Dodd lost her mother, Ellen, when she was 16. It was the late 1800s, a time when large families were common, and Ellen’s death left Sonora and her five younger siblings under the care of their father, William Jackson Smart.

William was a war veteran born in Arkansas in 1842. He had been married and widowed before meeting Sonora’s mother, also a widow. William was 56 years old when he was widowed for the second time.

According to History Channel records, it was Sonora who first had the idea to create Father’s Day while attending one of the first official Mother’s Day services in her hometown of Spokane, Washington, in 1909. The celebration made her reflect on her father’s devotion and affection in his role as a single parent. 

Spokane Falls, 1894. The city of Spokane was initially named “Spokane Falls.” The waterfall and dam on the Spokane River is located in today’s central business district in downtown Spokane. (Image: Marshall McDonald via Public Domain)

So, in 1910, Sonora asked her church to hold a service to recognize the love and courage of fathers like hers and suggested the service be held on June 5, William’s birthday. But given the time it took to make the arrangements, the clergy hosted it on June 19, the third Sunday in June.

On that day, fathers, living and deceased, were honored with red and white roses. The local celebration received proclamations from the mayor of Spokane and the governor of Washington. 

Seeing the positive impact of the commemoration, Sonora set out to make Father’s Day a national holiday, and it took her almost 60 years to achieve it. 

The decades-long road to national recognition

After the first Father’s Day celebration in 1910, Sonora got national media attention upon receiving a congratulatory letter from William Bryan, a prominent politician at the time. Through efforts, she won the support of her congressmen who began to advocate for the establishment of a national holiday.

The celebration had become an annual tradition in Spokane and, in 1916, then-president Woodrow Wilson took part during a visit to Washington. Three years later, Sonora’s father passed away, but that did not stop her from seeking acknowledgement for other fathers.

Mr. and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson seated outdoors with their three daughters standing behind them. President Woodrow Wilson passed the resolution declaring the second Sunday in May National Mother’s Day. (Image: Pach Brothers via Public Domain)

In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge joined the cause and, although he advocated observance of the holiday in 1924, there was no official national recognition.

During the 1920s and 1930, a new movement emerged in the U.S. to turn Mother’s Day – which had gained national recognition in 1914 – into Parents’ Day. Proponents wanted to include fathers in the already established commemoration, but no change was seen.

With the Great Depression (1929-1939), merchants saw in the idea of a holiday dedicated only to fathers an opportunity to revitalize the economy. They began to promote hats, ties, pipes and all other items to create something like a second Christmas for men, bringing attention to the celebration.

Later, during World War II, Father’s Day became an occasion to honor and support American troops. By the end of the war, Father’s Day was not yet a national holiday, but it had become part of the country’s culture and identity. 

It was in 1972 that Father’s Day was declared a national holiday by president Richard Nixon. By then, Sonora was 90 years old and had forged herself as a talented artist, author and active member of many of Spokane’s civic organizations. She passed away six years later. 

Today, an international celebration

(Image: StockSnap via Pixabay)

In the U.S., Sonora’s legacy is remembered annually on the third Sunday of every June, when  fatherhood is honored. Over 90 countries have adopted the same date to celebrate fathers, including countries like Canada, Nigeria, India, France, Colombia and Hong Kong.

Other countries, following spiritual traditions, recognize fathers on March 19, St. Joseph’s Day. These countries, including Italy, Spain, Mozambique and Honduras, take the opportunity to remember the virtuous paternal role of St. Joseph as the legal father of Jesus Christ.

Some other countries like Taiwan have their own dates to celebrate fathers, in keeping with their history and traditions. 

But whichever date is chosen to celebrate fathers, it is a global occasion to reflect on their important role as the backbone of their families, and the silent sacrifices many of them make for their children.

If you are fortunate to have yours still in your life, make sure he knows how much he means to you. 

Happy Father’s Day from the Vision Times family!