Father's Day: A Real Holiday or Just a Retail Holiday?

Fathers day
Fathers day

This Sunday is Father's Day, America's annual celebration of the spider-killing, bicycle-constructing, DNA-contributing men who proudly take active roles in the raising of their offspring. Yet as the country's dads prepare to unwrap their annual gifts of grills, barbecue mitts and ties, it's worth asking if Father's Day is a genuine holiday, designed to honor America's dads, or just another spot on the country's retail calendar, designed to help the economy through the rough patch between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

Caveat Emptor

Before I go any further, I need to note that, as the proud father of a 5-year-old girl, I have some skin in the Father's Day game. And, while I am gleefully anticipating this year's payload of grilling tools and neckwear, I am even more invested in the role of fatherhood in America. Over the past few years, America's dads have taken some hard hits: Economically, they were gut-shot by the Great Recession, in which men lost almost twice as many jobs as women. At the same time, they also faced a cultural onslaught, perhaps best demonstrated last year, when The Atlanticcelebrated Father's Day by publishing Are Fathers Necessary?, a nasty little screed by Pamela Paul. Her final summation: "The bad news for Dad is that despite common perception, there's nothing objectively essential about his contribution. The good news is, we've gotten used to him."

Thanks, Pam. You're a peach.

As for me, I come to praise dad, not to bury him, and I would argue that Father's Day is a small sop to throw America's dads. Still, it's hard to get past the notion that the timing of Father's Day is strangely convenient for retailers.

The Shopping ... ahem, Holiday Calendar

America's calendar is a hodgepodge of political and religious celebrations, cadged together for reasons that are sometimes hard to explain. Valentine's Day, for example, supposedly honors an obscure saint who may not have existed, while Halloween is officially a prelude to All Saint's Day, one of the more obscure Christian feast days. In truth, of course, both holidays are carry-overs from pre-Christian times: Valentine's Day is an update of Lupercalia, an ancient Roman fertility holiday, while Halloween is a recasting of Samhain, a Celtic harvest festival.

So why do we celebrate a pair of thinly disguised pagan festivals that have little to do with contemporary American life? Not to poo-poo fans of chocolate, jewelry or costumes, the biggest reason for both holidays is their impressive commercial power. The lead-up to Feb. 14 is a big payday for the candy industry, helping it to get through the dreary months between Christmas and Easter. Halloween, meanwhile, provides a similar function in the fall, helping the economy to wobble through the slow months between the back-to-school and Christmas sales pushes.

In fact, these days, it's hard to think of a major American holiday that isn't linked to the retail industry. Presidents Day usually brings a mass of linen bargains, while Easter gives a bump to candy makers. Independence Day is associated with cookouts, Mother's Day with brunches, and Christmas with toys. Memorial Day and Labor Day nicely bookend the summer amusement park season, while Father's Day -- as we've already noted -- marks the start of the summer barbecue push. And -- if Dad isn't into grilling -- there are always neckties and soap-on-a-rope, a pair of strangulation-based commodities that practically beg for some serious commercial support.

A Convenient Holiday

Father's Day hasn't always occupied its plum spot in the middle of June. In fact, the first celebration was held on July 5, 1908, a date that was inconveniently close to Independence Day. That original commemoration was anything but upbeat: It honored the victims of the 1907 Monongah mining disaster, in which 362 men were trapped and killed in a West Virginia coal mine. For the roughly 1,000 children who lost their fathers in the disaster, the significance of fathers -- and Father's Day -- could not have been more poignant.

Two years later, a far more prominent Father's Day celebration took place. Inspired by Mother's day, Sonora Smart Dodd, a Spokane, Wash., housewife, persuaded a coalition of religious groups to set aside a day to celebrate fathers. Dodd's inspiration was her own father, William Jackson Smart, who single-handedly raised his six children following the death of his wife. Initially, Dodd proposed that Father's Day be held on June 5 -- her father's birthday -- but was overruled by the coalition's members, who felt that it was too close to Mother's day. Ultimately, they decided to situate the holiday on June 19, a comfortable spot between Mother's Day and the Fourth of July.

Dodd's idea caught on. Six years later, President Woodrow Wilson joined in Spokane's Father's Day service. However, the holiday didn't join America's official calendar until 1972, when President Richard Nixon established the third Sunday in June as the date for its permanent national observance.

Commercial From the Start

Most holidays put up at least a token struggle against commercialism. For example, Mother's Day founder Anna Jarvis railed against businesses that tried to exploit her creation. Father's Day, on the other hand, was a retail bonanza almost from the start: In Spokane, Dodd worked with merchants to promote it, suggesting window displays and signs that would encourage customers to buy presents for their dads. In the 1930s, the Associated Men's Wear Retailers, a New York-based trade group, embraced the holiday with a "Father's Day Committee" to help publicize the day -- and the sales that attended it. Their perspective was immediately evident from the slogan they chose for the holiday: "Give Dad Something to Wear."

In retrospect, it's not surprising that ties quickly became the traditional Father's Day gift.

Because of its heavy commercial emphasis, Father's Day had to fight an uphill battle against consumers who saw it as a cynical attempt to wrest money from guilt-ridden children. Harvard Divinity School professor Leigh Eric Schmidt argues that Father's Day quickly embraced its own exploitation. In Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays, he notes that "Advertisers themselves recognized [the] wider cultural tendency to see Father's Day gifts as humbug, and one solution was to incorporate this into holiday promotions and to try to turn it to commercial advantage." In addition to offering playfully silly suggestions for Father's Day presents, many stores attacked competitors for promoting inappropriate or tacky gifts.

Boosting the Economy ...

Given Anna Jarvis' firm stance against commercialism, it's somewhat ironic that Mother's Day far outstrips Father's Day when it comes to spending. According to the National Retail Federation, the average mother received more than $140 in gifts this year, while the average American dad will get just over $106. Then again, even this comparatively small sum is a significant jump over last year, when the average dad raked in a meager $94.

This year-over-year jump illustrates Father's Day's key role in providing a spur for retailers. In fact, the amount of money spent on dads is a nice benchmark for the economy in general. In 2007, on the eve of the recession, per capita Father's Day spending hovered close to $100. Two years later, in the depths of the economic downfall, it had plummeted to just over $90. In context, 2011's expected retail windfall of $11.1 billion represents not just a lot of happy dads, but a retail economy that is regaining a lot of lost ground.

... and Celebrating Dads

Ultimately, though, Father's Day isn't about shopping. Rather, it's about honoring fathers and their place in the lives of America's children. Given the holiday's overly-commercialized origins -- not to mention the ballyhoo surrounding its yearly observance -- this can be a bit hard to remember. Still, while preparing for this Sunday's festivities, you might want to take a moment to think of any dads you know who have struggled to support and nurture their children.

And then, of course, get in line to pick up the required "Kiss the Cook" apron and a hideous tie.

Also See: What Super-Rich Dads Teach Their Kids

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.