Father's Day: A Reluctant Defense
I know no father who cares a whit about Father's Day. We are pleased to be doted on by our families of course, but we have no longing to be "appreciated" for our special role in the world. Fathers consider what they do to be carrying out the normal duties and requirements of life itself, not some enormous sacrifice for others that periodically needs to be recognized.
Anyone with a critical sense sees both Mother's Day and Father's Day as oddly tainted, somehow inauthentic, trumped days that are different in substance from Easter and Christmas. Why is that?
Well, as purely secular occasions they bear all the earmarks of the Progressive Era in which both of these days originated. They seem to reflect a brow-beating demand on the part of national elites who agitated for these days because somehow our culture was deficient in recognizing the merit of Mom and Dad, and so these days of appreciation seem to mask a school-marmish demand that we shape up and stop taking things for granted.
Sure, fathers and mothers are gravely essential. No question. But must we have a holiday for all gravely essential institutions in society? Do we need a national toothbrush day? Actually, all of February is set aside as National Children's Dental Month, probably codified by some president along the way, and shame on you if you forgot to celebrate it.
Somehow, dads were able to psychologically manage before 1966 when Lyndon Johnson proclaimed the 3rd Sunday of June as Father's Day, to be codified further by Nixon six years later. All these proclamations work to displace the traditional and historically organic liturgical calendar that celebrates every conceivable emotion and institution, and has the merit of having deep roots in the history of civilization.
US culture is particularly vulnerable to this kind of manipulation because of its non-liturgical, Puritan origins. Given the degree to which the Puritans hated religious holidays, we should be thankful we have Christmas at all. If the current secular culture wants to take "Christ out of Christmas," the New England Puritans were first in wanting to take Christmas out of Christ. It wasn't the postwar atheists who cleared the path for the hegemony of the secular calendar; it was the 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony and its war on all "superstitious" festivals.
In modern times, it is particularly pathetic that Christian churches have had to reconfigure their own celebrations to accord with these secular occasions. Mother's Day was actually the Seventh Sunday of Easter on the Christian religious calendar, but Marian songs dominated all Catholic liturgies. Even though this Sunday is Holy Trinity, I'm willing to bet that "Faith of Our Fathers" will be sung in churches across the land.
But its secularity isn't the only reason to be skeptical of Father's Day. Its codification by the office of the presidency is extremely annoying. This is the office that starts wars, drafts kids and sends them to their death, raises taxes, nationalizes schools, spies on everyone, tells you what you can ingest or not, purports to replace the role of dads in society and culture, and otherwise creates social and economic havoc in every way possible – oh, and, by the way, also reminds you to have a high regard for mom and dad. Well, anyone with a contrarian streak is naturally going to say: no thanks, hypocrites!
And yet these are not the usual reasons people question Father's Day. Most skepticism concerns its commercial impact. As Richard Stengel wrote in Time (June 15, 2001), the day isn't really about the "sentiment about the enduring role of fathers in our lives, but the pervasive tickle of modern capitalism, where in order to enhance the desire for more and more objects, we have to create more and more holidays that are occasions for consuming them."
Now, in the thousands of online histories of Father's Day (most of which plagiarize each other), I've come across nothing that would indicate that greeting card companies or necktie makers had anything to do with inventing this day. Do the capitalists love it? Of course! Those who profit from the day make money only because they are offering cards and ties that people want to buy for Dad, which is to say that they are providing a service that can be embraced or rejected by the consumer himself.
But let's say that the holiday had really been invented by a commercial outfit. What if an entrepreneur had the idea of manufacturing a holiday in order to sell products? If this person succeeds in doing so, it can only be because he or she anticipated an unmet need in the marketplace, which is to say, he or she was first in filling a niche.
Let's say the CEO of Dunkin' Donuts proclaimed National Donut Day and said it can only be celebrated by eating gobs of donuts bought from DD. This wouldn't make the holiday less legitimate or inauthentic than government-invented days like Memorial Day or Veterans Day. Why defer to government-created days because those who proclaimed them are selfless public servants but reject commercial days on grounds of the profiteering motivations of the capitalist class?
It is common for people to dismiss Father's Day on grounds of its commercial nature. There's nothing at all wrong with that, just as there is nothing wrong with dismissing an ad for dishwashing soap as silly. Anyone living in a commercial society develops a sense of skepticism that is essential for navigating economic life. At the same time, one never hears someone say: "I don't celebrate Veterans Day; it is a phony holiday invented by the state to trick us into celebrating the government's wars." Someone who did say that should be a friend for life!
The beauty of a hypothetical holiday of purely commercial origins (National Microsoft Appreciation Day) is precisely that we can see straight through them. That is why they are unlikely to catch on. In fact, if there is a nationally recognized holiday of purely commercial origin, I would like to know about it.
Government holidays, on the other hand, do take hold, because the government claims to speak for the entire nation. It can subsidize the holiday by shutting all government offices (while still paying employees out of public funds). It can spread posters all throughout its monopoly postal service. It can distribute propaganda through public schools and "public service ads." This is real manipulation at public expense.
In the history of our forebears, the calendar that determined what we celebrated and why was neither of government nor commercial origin. It grew up around the life of the Christian Church, telling the story of Jesus's life and the saints and martyrs who lived and died for the faith. It was the product of many centuries of organic development. There was no Father's Day but rather St. Joseph's Day.
The liturgical calendar and commercially viable days like Father's Day do have this in common, however: the energy behind them is supported by the voluntary outpouring of sentiment and/or money from people who are free to choose. Skepticism of today's holidays is indeed essential, but it should start with commercially unviable days that were invented by the public sector for the public sector (Veterans and Labor). Father's Day is a minor annoyance by comparison. I'll take t-shirts and ties over wars and body bags.