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In the name of the father

Somewhere under a pile of golf tees, bottles of whisky and Homer Simpson boxer shortsis a father celebrating his special day. Victoria Neumark looks at the background to the day

One father is worth more than a hundred schoolmasters," says an old English proverb. To find out if this is still true, watch out for sales of ties, whisky, photoframes and boxed sets of practically anything, especially if it is golf-related, in the build-up to the third Sunday in June.

There is much talk about the importance of fathers in these days of agonising over the fate and academic inferiority of boys: none the less, compliance with the EC directive on parental leave (see www.parliament.uk), requiring employers to allow three months' paid leave for each child, is still far from widespread practice in the UK. At the same time, many people agree with Sigmund Freud that they "cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father's protection." However, they might share playwright August Strindberg's glum view of "the thankless position of the father in the family - the provider for all, and the enemy of all."

June, ironically or not, is also the first National Childcare Month in this country (look on www.nationalchild caremonth.com for details) and, in the US, Women in Technology Month (www.witi.org). While it may be relatively easy to get down the kids club in your school and blow up balloons or to marvel at the achievements of glass-ceiling busters overseas, fathers are a trickier proposition to celebrate.

Or so it would seem from a quick scan of midsummer celebrations available. Those ties and golfclubs are fighting it out with other prime celebrations like Gingerbread Day on June 5 (gingerbread dad, anyone?), National Yo-Yo Day on June 10, Fly a Kite Day on June 15 and Chocolate Pudding Day on June 26. That's just a few of the available daily festivities. June is also Dairy Month, National Adopt-a-Cat Month, National Drive Safe Month, National Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Month, National Iced Tea Month, National Rose Month, National Safety Month, National Tennis Month, Turkey Lovers Month and Zoo and Aquarium Month.

Fathers' Day began in Spokane, Washington in 1909. Sonora Dodd was listening to a Mothering Sunday sermon when it occurred to her that fathers also deserved public honouring. When Sonora's mother died giving birth to her, Sonora, along with her five brothers and sisters, had been brought up by her father, William Smart, alone. Mrs Dodd, a formidable figure, set about organising a day of honour for fathers. In 1910, the Ministerial Society of Spokane bent to her will.

Soon celebrations spread across the US. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson approved the idea nationally. Eight years later, in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge remarked that Fathers' Day would "establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children, and impress upon their fathers the full measure of their obligations". But it was not until 1966 that Lyndon Johnson finally bowed to Mrs Dodd and signed a presidential proclamation declaring the third Sunday in June as Fathers' Day (www.splash-frames.co.ukpagesfathers_day).

In the UK, as might be expected, we caught on later to the idea of Fathers'

Day. Cards and offerings on the internet from this side of the Atlantic tend to the nervously jokey and the tragically sombre, rather than the rousingly gung-ho of Fathers Day US-style. Bullish pronouncements that a surge in text messaging is expected on Fathers' Day (www.boltblue.net) rub uneasy shoulders with poems about bereavement (www.storyteller.org). Jokes play on well-known paternal roles, for instance:

"Daddy, Daddy, can I have another glass of water please?"

"But I've given you 10 glasses of water already!"

"Yes, but the bedroom is still on fire!"

Yet the idea of Embarrassment, that particularly British emotion, looms large:

"What do you call two people who embarrass you in front of your friends?"

"Mum and Dad!"

However, there are signs that fathers will be treated with greater gravity. They are on the citizenship syllabus. Civitas (www.civitas.org) offers serious thoughts and lesson plans; the National Family and Parenting Institute (www.nfpi.org.uk) set up by the government in 2000, promotes family values through conferences and publications. Look out for their new paper, "What Good are Dads?" That's a question Mrs Dodd would have no difficulty in answering, anyhow.

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