The UK adores its cultural idiosyncrasies but many worry we are being consumed by an American tidal wave. We are tripping over MacDonalds and Starbucks on every street while we watch yet another Hollywood TV box set on a smartphone designed by, wait for it, Americans.
Our kids go to school proms and ‘Sweet Sixteens’ are demanding more attention and British Halloween is like a kid desperately trying to copy its bigger and cooler American friend. Personally, I enjoy seeing pumpkins lining the streets and why not enjoy a prom after the stress of school exams. However, what really turns the British stiff upper lip limp are the endless calendar celebrations keeping novelty gift companies in the black. From World Pasta Day to International Send A Greeting Card Day, there is a sense that these ‘days’ have a definite American flavour.
Perceived as a millennial problem, ‘Generation X and Baby Boomers boast that “it was different in my day”. Frankly, it’s time to upgrade their rose-tinted spectacles. When Father’s Day was born more than 100 years ago, there were remarkably similar complaints. Where did Father’s day begin you ask? Well the USA, of course, which makes this holiday a great case to examine further.
In fact, there are two origin stories for Father’s Day and both concern American women. Most historians credit Sonora Smart Dodd with the inspiration. Sonora lost her mother to childbirth and was raised with her five siblings by Civil War veteran William Jackson Smart. Considering how dangerous childbirth was in the past, there must have been significant numbers of single dads raising their children yet we focus more on single mums. Sitting in church listening to a sermon for Mother’s Day, Sonora wondered why fathers did not receive the same honour. She lobbied hard until finally the third Sunday in June 1910 was earmarked as Father’s Day. That Sunday Sonora started a tradition whereby children celebrated their dads by either giving them a red rose or wearing it themselves. A white rose was laid for parents who had passed. Depressingly somewhere along the timeline, these roses have been replaced with slogan-encrusted tat cluttering seasonal supermarket aisles. More depressing still, we have no modern equivalent for the white rose. As someone who has lost a parent, I understand very well how the marketing hype around these days can be so upsetting.
Other historians believe Grace Golden Clayton, an orphan from Fairmount, West Virginia was the first to celebrate Father’s Day. In 1907 America experienced a cataclysmic mining disaster when an explosion at the Monongah Mine in West Virginia killed more than 300 men. Grace, who desperately missed her own late father, was deeply affected by the tragedy. She was determined her Methodist community should honour those men who had left behind 250 widows and more than 1,000 orphaned children. However the date chosen, July 5th 1908, proved inauspicious. Her special day was overshadowed that weekend by the town’s largest-ever July 4th celebrations during which a local child went missing devastating the community. So the first Father’s Day took place with little fanfare, barely making it into the footnotes of history.
Neither Sonora nor Grace persuaded the public to embrace their concept. While Mother’s Day has been around for centuries and unquestioningly declared as an official holiday in 1914, Father’s Day faced ridicule and opposition. Despite support from various presidents it took until 1972 to make it an official public holiday. Men were providers and leaders, too vital to waste time with domestic life. So a day celebrating dads, a role seen as lesser, faced the full force of media derision. Let’s face it these attitudes still lurk in pub corners, dusty greeting card stands and under the bonnet of male-affirming sports cars.
It’s fascinating that many of Sonora and Grace’s contemporaries were opposed to their idea for reasons we consider thoroughly modern. They too saw it as yet another meaningless anniversary created to grease commercial greed. Interestingly, Anna Jarvis, who was responsible for making Mother’s Day official, spent the second half of her life trying to remove it from the calendar because she was so appalled by its commercialisation. That’s got to hurt the “it was different in our day” generation.
Unfortunately, the naysayers got it right. A day that began as a poignant reaction to grief and a desire to honour fathers has, it seems, fallen to the dark side of consumerism.
However, try as they might, card companies can’t seem to create the same momentum (read that as guilt-inducing) about Father’s Day as Mothering Sunday enjoys. Perhaps it’s because we are still stuck in a 1950’s wormhole where parenting is just code for mum. Or maybe it’s just easier to buy crappy bits of tat for women. After all, there are only so many socks, mugs and mouse mats sporting ‘Best Dad’ a man can own.
And while we have evolved slightly further than the Father’s Day pioneers, there are still different gender expectations today. Alongside a burnt breakfast in bed and Prosecco lunch, it’s generally agreed that the best gift on Mother’s Day is giving mum ‘me-time’ alone. In contrast, dads are expected to spend their day family-style. Their well-worn clichés include flying kites with the kids; a day at the seaside with the kids, playing in the park with the kids… a pattern is emerging.
Dressed as light-hearted banter, it’s socially accepted that mums need a day off whereas men are domestically useless and/or absent so their special day should focus on quality family time.
Of course, too many women still do the majority of childcare regardless whether they work full time or not. Times may be a changing but it’s at a pace even slower than the evolutionary period that transformed apes throwing their shit to humans talking shit.
However, if we want more men like Sonora’s dad, we need to honour each day equally because good parenting is not dependent on gender. Better still, merge them and celebrate Family Day instead.
Copyright by Sonia Picker