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Celebrating Mom and Dad: The Origins of Mother’s and Father’s Days

It’s that time again! Time to celebrate mothers and fathers everywhere, stepparents, foster parents, adopted family and all of those individuals who have stood in as a mother and father to make an impact on another’s life. This year Mother’s Day will be observed on Sunday, May 14, and Father’s Day will be marked on June 18.

Have you ever wondered how these holidays came to be? You probably already knew that both are considered to be official national holidays, but you may be surprised at their respective origins.

Mother’s Day

Wikipedia probably defines Mother’s Day the most eloquently: “[It is] a celebration honoring the mother of the family, as well as motherhood, maternal bonds and the influence of mothers in society.” A wonderful, and very true, sentiment.

The tradition of celebrating mothers, motherhood and a mother’s bond goes back to ancient times, when the Greeks and Romans would perform great elaborate ceremonies for goddesses Rhea and Cybele. Over time, the observation of Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent, evolved, but focused more on an individual’s return to their mother church than any recognition of one’s mother figure. (It is still celebrated as such in many countries, including the United Kingdom.)

Mother’s Day, as it is known today, really got its start in 1908, when a woman in Grafton, West Virginia, wanted to hold a memorial for her mother at the town’s St. Andre’s Methodist Church. Anna Jarvis, who had lost her mother in 1905, said she wanted to continue honoring her mother every year and worked to set aside a day each year to honor all mothers. The southern West Virginia church is now home to an International Mother’s Day Shrine.

While the United States Congress initially rejected Anna’s proposal in 1908, by 1911 every state was marking the day. West Virginia was the first, and soon many towns across the nation considered the yearly holiday an official one on a local level.

Mother’s Day was made a national holiday in 1914 with a proclamation by Woodrow Wilson, just two years after Anna trademarked the phrase “Mother’s Day” as well as “second Sunday in May” and established the Mother’s Day International Association. Many mothers today didn’t ever actually give birth to those that refer to them as mothers; in many cases there is not even a relation between someone and the individual they call Mom. The day has come a long way, and now means more than it ever has! 

Father’s Day

The Father’s Day holiday has just as much of a storied history, and a tie once again to President Woodrow Wilson. However, its start was not here in America.

A celebration of fathers, the paternal bond and a recognition of the influence of fathers in society has been marked in some way since the Middle Ages by Catholic tradition, though much earlier in the year (March 19, St. Joseph’s Day). In the U.S., the first Father’s Day was marked on July 5, 1908, at the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South in Fairmont. The remembrance also stemmed from the death of a loved one, in this case the father of Grace Golden Clayton, who had been killed six months earlier in the Monongah mine disaster that took 361 lives. At least 250 fathers were lost and 1,000 children were left fatherless, so Grace urged her pastor to honor the entire group.

The observance of Father’s Day did not start with the same enthusiasm as that of Mother’s Day, and other subsequent attempts to establish Father’s Day on a wider scale ultimately failed. Two others in 1911 and 1915 proclaimed they had established the day and were met with varying levels of success.

Enter a young woman in June 1910, Sonora Smart Todd, who organized a celebration of Father’s Day in Spokane Washington, to recognize her single-parent father William Jackson Smart after learning of Anna Jarvis’ sermon in West Virginia. Many years later in the 1930s, when Sonora completed her education, she began pushing for a national-level recognition of Father’s Day.

A bill was proposed before Congress in 1913, and three years later President Wilson spoke at a ceremony in Spokane to say that his wish for the passage of the holiday had been met with fear by legislators that the day would be taken over by commercialization. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge recommended the nationalization of Father’s Day, but never issued a proclamation. It was not until 1966 that the proclamation would finally be made by Lyndon B. Johnson, and it took another six years after that for Richard Nixon to sign the bill into law to permanently make the third Sunday of each June Father’s Day. Whew! It was a long 60-year road to an annual day we now feel like has been around forever. In many ways, it has.

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