The tragic origins of Father's Day celebrations

Coal miners preparing to returned to work after the great strike
Men like these Scranton miners perished in the Fairmont Company coal mining disaster | Image: Shutterstock

The origin of Father’s Day is far more heartfelt and meaningful than you might have first realised. While cynics often say we don’t need commercial holidays to help us celebrate the ones we love, it’s always nice to dedicate a day each year to those who are important to us - and Father’s Day is no different. From socks and ties to beer and chocolates - everyone celebrates in a way that is personal to them. However, you might be surprised to hear it hasn’t always been a commercial holiday centred around novelty gifts.

When is Father’s Day?

Father’s Day is celebrated each year on the third Sunday of June, meaning that in 2022 it will fall on 19 June.

Unlike Mother’s Day here in the UK, which evolved off the back of the 16th-century Christian celebration of Mothering Sunday, Father’s Day is an annual holiday with a more modern, secular, and even tragic origin.

The First Father’s Day

It was a cold and sleepy morning on 6th December 1907 when the workers at West Virginia's Fairmont Company coal mine clocked in. The workers were made up almost entirely of immigrants from Italy, Eastern Europe, and Russia who had travelled to the US hoping for a better life.

Shortly before 10:30am, a spark ignited gasses and caused an explosion that ripped through the mines. Rescue parties were sent down to the mine less than 30 minutes after the explosion, but toxic gasses and structural failure hindered any rescue attempts.

The damage that wrought its way through the mines tore down the ventilation shafts, ripped down support beams, and burned up the oxygen. Of the 420 men registered as working that morning, 361 lost their lives. Worse still, the official records were likely incorrect, as many of the men would bring their children or families into the mines to help them. Estimations suggest that approximately 1,000 children lost their fathers that day, and the Monongah Mining Disaster remains the worst mining disaster in American history.

Having been deeply affected by the loss of her own father in 1896, a woman named Grace Clayton was deeply moved when she heard of the tragedy. She sympathised greatly with the families and came up with an idea to offer support.

The first Father’s Day service was held at the Williams Memorial Church on 5th July 1908. The service was small and went largely unnoticed. Intended as a one-off commemoration service for those mourning the loss of their husbands, fathers, and sons, Grace never intended to repeat the event.

Indeed, the tradition of Father’s Day almost started and ended in Monongah, West Virginia. If it wasn’t for the intervention of another woman living in the state of Washington two years later, it might never have gone global.

The mother of Father's Day

Raised as one of six children, Sonora Smart Dodds held deep admiration and respect for her father. A civil war veteran, he was a single parent to Sonora and her five brothers after her mother died during childbirth. Inspired by Anna Jarvis, the woman who helped make Mother’s Day a success in the US (unrelated to the UK celebration), Sonora wanted a similar day where she could celebrate the hard work and love of fathers.

Initially, the idea of Father’s Day was scoffed at by many. The idea that masculinity and fatherhood were far less sentimental than motherhood meant that a day associated with flowers and emotion was laughable. But Sonora was not put off. Convincing her local ministerial association to set aside a Sunday in their calendar, Sonora had taken the first step, but she still had an uphill struggle ahead of her.

On June 19th 1910, the first celebration of fathers took place across Spokane, Washington. While only observed on a small local scale, Sonora’s celebration was beginning to make waves, and it wasn’t long until it caught the attention of those in charge.

Sonora personally delivered gifts to disabled fathers in her local neighbourhood. Meanwhile, the local YMCA got involved, and ministers across Spokane delivered sermons and dedicated services to all the fathers in the congregation.

Signed in by Richard Nixon

Even though Sonora’s event had seemed to strike a chord with the American public, it remained an unofficial event on the social calendar. It took a while before it truly gained momentum. Various presidents celebrated the day privately with their families, but it wasn’t until World War Two that Father’s Day began to gain the recognition it deserved.

With so many men fighting on the front line, Father’s Day was used as an excuse by the US government to provide much-needed support and morale to the troops fighting overseas. Propaganda encouraging families to send care packages and letters of support to their loved ones bolstered the growing movement and introduced it to parts of the US that it hadn’t yet reached.

Following the war, the day continued to grow and evolve into a celebration of all aspects of fatherhood. When Richard Nixon finally made it an official American holiday in 1972, it had already crossed the pond to the UK. Father’s Day had been eagerly amalgamated into the national calendar as the third Sunday in June. However, there is no set date when it became a traditional celebration in the UK.

Over 100 years on from the first Father’s Day, the day is still one of celebration of those dads still living and a remembrance of those who have since passed. While the celebration is a personal preference that differs for each family, the core of the holiday is still just as true today: dads deserve to be celebrated for all their love and hard work!

Father’s Day traditions around the world

● Spain, Italy, and Portugal all celebrate Father’s Day on 19th March to coincide with the Feast of St Joseph - the patron saint of fathers!

● Thailand celebrates Father’s Day on 5th December to celebrate the late King Bhumibol’s birthday. Often considered the father of Thailand, the celebration now commemorates the king who passed away in 2016. Tradition states that everyone should wear yellow as it is the colour associated with Monday - the day the king was born.

● Coinciding with the Holy Ascension Day (which falls forty days after Easter), ‘Vatertag’ is a German public holiday. Usually followed by a bridge day on the following Friday, the four-day weekend means that the day is often celebrated with beer and good food.

● Father’s Day is celebrated a little differently in Russia, where it is celebrated on 23rd February. There it’s called ‘Defender of the Fatherland Day’.