Though Father’s Day wasn’t made a national holiday until 1972, the efforts of one woman in Washington sparked a movement to celebrate dads long before then.
Sonora Dodd and Father’s Day
The first known Father’s Day service occurred in Fairmont, West Virginia, on July 5, 1908, thanks to the efforts of Grace Golden Clayton. The service was to honor all fathers, especially those hundreds who were killed during a devastating mine explosion in Monongah (just a few miles from Fairmont) the previous year. However, the observance did not become an annual event, and it was not promoted—very few outside the local area knew about it.
In 1909, Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington, also was inspired to create a holiday honoring fathers. William Jackson Smart, her father, was a farmer and Civil War veteran that raised Sonora and her five younger brothers by himself after his wife, Ellen, died giving birth to their youngest child in 1898. While attending a Mother’s Day church service in 1909, Sonora, then 27, came up with the idea.
Within a few months, Sonora had convinced the Spokane Ministerial Association and the YMCA to set aside a Sunday in June to celebrate fathers. She proposed June 5, her father’s birthday, but the ministers chose the third Sunday in June so that they would have more time after Mother’s Day (the second Sunday in May) to prepare their sermons. So it was that on June 19, 1910, Sonora delivered presents to handicapped fathers, boys from the YMCA decorated their lapels with fresh-cut roses (red for living fathers, white for the deceased), and the city’s ministers devoted their homilies to fatherhood.
A National Holiday
The widely publicized events in Spokane struck a chord that reached all the way to Washington, D.C., and Sonora’s celebration started its path to becoming a national holiday.
- In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson and his family personally observed the day.
- Eight years later, President Calvin Coolidge signed a resolution in favor of Father’s Day “to establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations.”
- In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order that the holiday be celebrated on the third Sunday in June.
- Under President Richard Nixon, in 1972, Congress passed an act officially making Father’s Day a national holiday. (Six years later, Sonora died at age 96.)
Different Days for Different Dads
North America is not the only place where Father’s Day is celebrated.
- In traditionally Catholic countries such as Spain and Portugal, Father’s Day is observed on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph.
- Taiwanese celebrate Father’s Day on August 8, the eighth day of the eighth month, because the Mandarin Chinese word for eight sounds like the word for “Papa.”
- In Thailand, Father’s Day occurs on the king’s birthday, which for current King Bhumibol Adulyadej is December 5.