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Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Origins of Father's Day

Today, Father's Day is one of the cycle of Christian festivals, held on the 3rd Sunday of June. And just like Mothering Sunday, Harvest Festival, Children in Need and the like, nobody would ever dream that it was anything other than a celebration passed straight down from the Bible itself.

But in fact Father's Day has an origin that goes, like everything that anybody ever celebrates anywhere, back to Pagan times.

The pre-Christian Germanic races held a feast called "VatersDag" in the middle of June every year. Although we know little about it, we can assume that it was held at the point in the year when the menfolk were sent off for six weeks to slay the neighbouring tribes and steal their chinchillas (a notable delicacy in Teutonic times). They had to get back for the feast of Lammas (or LaefandaLagerPleaseHansMass, as it was called in the original Old Proto-Saxonian) so they could get the crops in.

Although the feast was in the midst of ancient and unwritten times, the little German children would make clay models of Odin and Thunor, and hang them in their World Ash trees as a gift to the gods, in the hope that their dads would be home soon, with some really juicy chincillas to eat.

With the coming of Christianity to Britian, St Boniface and St Wilibrord decided to impose the same kind of Christianisation on pagan festivals that Augustine had applied to Christmas, Easter and St Gandalf's Day (Jan 3rd). But all the other pagan festivals had already been taken in England, and so they had to travel all the way to Holland and Germany just to find VatersDag, which had been overlooked. Landing at Wassenaar, Wilibrord was going to be killed by the locals for not wearing clogs and a pointy hat. But he got away with it by turning to the local lord and saying "Coming to meet me on this cold day in wooden shoes? You must be Frisian!" Being of Germanic blood, they assumed that this play on words was some kind of miracle, and were instantly converted.

Wilibrord and Boniface originally converted the feast to being "Our Father's Day", a celebration of the giving of the Lord's Prayer. But Pope Leo III, when introduced to the new observance, had another idea. Having crowned Charlemagne, he was in a mood for aggressively expanding the influence of his rule, and declared the festival to be "Il Papa's Day".

Throughout the Midldle Ages, the faithful would remember the Pope on that 3rd Sunday in June, buying him bottles of beer, cheap aftershave and handkerchiefs and sending them to Rome. But as time went by, the great stashes of these gifts built up. When Luther visited Rome in 1510, he was shocked to see entire warehouses full of Brut and socks - although the monks made sure none of the beer went to waste. It is a little-known fact that when he nailed 95 theses to the Wittenberg door, he had written them on hankies and nailed them with a pair of cufflinks that had been intended for Rome.

Luther was always a moderate reformer. He replaced Il Papa's day with Father's Day as we more-or-less know it today. In England, Henry VIII tried to make it a feast day when everybody sent the king gifts as the father of the country. Like most of Henry's ideas, this wasn't terribly popular until the hangings started, after which it really caught on quite well.

The Puritans banned Father's Day, along with everything else. But when they had fallen from power, Charles II became a great fan of the day. He received many gifts every year - although his mistresses' husbands would sometimes wonder where the whisky and neckties they had seen in the shopping had got to, by Sunday morning.

But it was the Victorians who popularised Father's Day in the rest of Britain - Albert introducing the concept at Balmoral, from Germany where it had originated. Having nine children, he was never short of socks as long as he lived. In the 20th century, when it started to be popular in America, card-makers and other commercial operations became interested in it. And so we have the festival that we celebrate today - a Christian festival that, shamefully in my opinion, has been quite blatantly commercialised. And beyond it all, an innocent memory of those young Saxon men, kissing their children goodbye before going off to steal their neighbours' rodents.

1 comment :

  1. Fathers day isn't thankfully a Christian festival, although it might be argued that honoring God the Father would be worthwhile. Or even Joseph as Jesus' Step Father.

    Having a father you might want to honor is difficult for some of us who don't hold good memories of the man who treated them quite badly as children and who left as soon as they possibly could to escape the very poor home atmosphere.

    I have been helped a bit when I found out about his post-WW2 Post Traumatic stress, so forgiveness is given ungrudgingly.

    I respect those who want to celebrate having a loving Father, but won't join them in my own right, as it doesn't seem appropriate to celebrate unhappy memories.

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