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History of Father's Day

By, Bill Petro

The celebration of Father's Day goes back all the way to the beginning, actually to the Garden of Eden when Abel gave his father Adam a razor while his brother Cain gave his father a snake-skin tie. This was the beginning of Cain's downward slide.

Four thousand years ago in Babylon the boy Elmesu carved a greeting to his father on a clay tablet, wishing him health and long life. However, as it was difficult to attach stamps to clay cards at the time, the holiday proved impractical and did not stick.

The holiday was first canonized in the West by Pope Hallmark in 1582 in the Papal Bull entitled Quando Ipso Facto Volare FTD Que Sera Sera which roughly translated means "When you care enough to send the very best." This was confirmed years later in the United States when one of the founding matriarchs, Ma Bell, ordained both Mother's Day and Father's Day in an attempt to help bolster the fledgling nation's telecommunication coffers. It is well known that Mother's Day generally posts the highest volume of long-distance telephone calls of any single day of the year. It is not as well known that Father's Day posts the highest volume of long-distance collect calls.

In modern times, particularly in America, the celebration goes back over a hundred years. There was a one-time celebration in Fairmont, West Virginia in 1908 by Grace Clayton, but it was not officially registered. In 1910 a Presbyterian church in Spokane, Washington aided by the local YMCA and ministerial alliance helped promote the previous year's celebration organized in that town by Sonora Dodd. She had been moved by the 1909 establishment of Mother's Day to fashion a holiday to honor fathers. Though a bill was submitted to Congress for the first time in 1913 for a national proclamation -- and the holiday got support from Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge -- it was not until 1966 that President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed the third Sunday in June as Father's Day. But it took President Richard Nixon to sign it into law 6 years later in 1972. Although the first symbol was the wearing of a red rose for a living father and a white rose for a deceased father, this has been replaced by gifts of highly sophisticated miniature mobile electronics or large noise producing tools.

Father's Day has not enjoyed the same popularity as Mother's Day in America. Perhaps this is because of recent generations' conflicted feelings about fathers. In our lifetime, the current generation of fathers grew up in what was called the Baby Boomer generation -- those born between 1946 following the end of WWII and 1964 the dawn of the post-modern period in the United States. Many Boomers came of age during the period of time when the "generation gap" was most pronounced. This was back in the day when you didn't "trust anyone over 30" and the older generation just didn't "get it." Young men respected but did not trust their fathers. Their fathers' generation, the "Builders" or what has been called the Greatest Generation, had lived through the Depression and had fought in WWII, but didn't get the Beatles. The Builders had done many things well, but what they were unsuccessful at was succession. They did not know how to pass on to their sons the torch of leadership. In another time, this would have meant training their sons to be first a page, then a squire, and ultimately a knight. In the '60s and '70s it meant successfully passing on to their sons the assurance that they had what it took to be a man. Think "Rebel Without a Cause." Without having received the "blessing" of their fathers, young men looked for their significance in other things, in other places.

Some came to terms with it by paying tribute to their fathers. Many of Stephen Spielberg's movies feature absent fathers but his movie "Hook" celebrates recapturing the value of being a father, even for a boy who never wanted to grow up. Spielberg's friend Tom Hanks honored his own father Amos who served in WWII. Hanks appeared in the popular Spielberg movie "Saving Private Ryan" and went on to produce with Spielberg the award winning HBO mini-series based on the Stephen Ambrose book "Band of Brothers," in part as a tribute to his father. Hanks subsequently narrated part of Ken Burns' "The War" and co-produced with Spielberg "The Pacific."

I too did a tribute to my father, who liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp at the end of WWII. It was featured on HBO's website when the Band of Brothers mini-series first premiered, as an introduction to the episode "Why We Fight". Ironically, my father crossed paths twice with the Easy Company of the 101st Airborne from Band of Brothers, first at the Battle of the Bulge, and later at the liberation of Dachau and its satellite camps. His story is told in full at

So this generation of Boomer young men have grown up now, and they're the fathers of the current generation: Gen X, Gen Y, the Millenials. What legacy will they pass on to their children?

Everyone has had a father, but not everyone can be a father, especially if you are a woman. But there are few challenges in the world that are more rewarding than being a father. It is a special joy and a great honor.

Bill Petro, the son of a WWII veteran and the father of a daughter and son, writes widely on history, technology, popular culture, and international travel. He has been sending articles on the History of the Holidays across the Internet since 1984. You can find him at

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