This Sunday is Father’s Day, a holiday deeply entrenched in America’s collective psyche. Every third Sunday in June, millions of families pay tribute to dad by giving him the royal treatment, a way of officially acknowledging his many contributions. Taking dad out to dinner, cooking his favorite meal, making a phone call, or simply sending an email or text has become a national institution much like Mother’s Day is for moms, with the holiday canonized by Hallmark cards and retailers. If dad has passed on, Father’s Day is often the day when family members visit his place of burial or devote some time to remember him. Schools have adopted the holiday, using it as an opportunity for students to make a handmade card. The media has been especially attuned to Father’s Day, routinely dedicating space and time to dad-related issues on or around the day. More than anything else, the day serves as an opportunity for adult children to think of dear old dad, often by regretting his absence but sometimes pondering why things did not turn out as well as they might have.
How did what is certainly the nation’s biggest public celebration of fatherhood come to be? After humble beginnings in the early 20th century, Father’s Day consistently picked up steam to become the popular holiday it is today in the United States. (Dozens of other countries around the world also commemorate the day.) Hallmark began offering Father’s Day cards in 1920s, helping to establish it as a feature of American life. By the 1930s, Mother’s Day had become highly commercialized, making retailers try to promote Father’s Day to repeat their success. While Depression-era consumers were not quite ready for another fabricated reason to part with their money, the appreciation of men serving in the military during World War II helped retailers’ cause immensely, leading to the $1 billion+ boy toy bonanza it is today.
What is perhaps most interesting about Father’s Day is how presidents throughout the 20th century made efforts to proclaim it as a national holiday. Presidents Wilson and Coolidge each honored the day, more likely as a publicity event for themselves than anything else, but were rebuffed by Congress when they sought it to become an officially observed celebration. Flash forward a few decades when LBJ issued the first presidential proclamation to honor fathers in 1966, but it would be President Nixon who successfully turned Father’s Day into a national holiday in 1972. (Nixon just happened to be in the midst of his reelection campaign when the law was passed.)
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter felt the need to re-declare Father’s Day officially, and he did so in April of that year in a nationwide speech. Fathers were now being expected to play a more significant role in raising children, he noted, calling upon dads to take on greater responsibilities in family life. Carter and his wife Rosalynn had four children, and the couple made concerted efforts to be actively involved parents despite their very busy schedules. President Obama and the First Lady would do the same a few administrations later by publicly acknowledging the importance and value of fatherhood, in part a response to the epidemic of fatherlessness in this country. Father’s Day is indeed an opportunity to recognize that dads truly matter by bestowing in their children the psychological gifts of confidence, self-esteem, sense of adventure, and sensible risk-taking. Happy Father’s Day to those men who have embarked on what is one of life’s great journeys.