CHRISTMAS 1918: HOW AMERICA CELEBRATED HOLIDAYS DURING LAST PANDEMIC

The New York Post:

Americans celebrated Christmas over a century ago during the previous pandemic with some of the same concerns of the modern day, including considering whether to gather with loved ones and risk deadly infection.

  But in 1918, World War I had just ended and many soldiers were headed home for the holidays to see family. And with the federal government less prominent than it is today, and the advent of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1946 still decades away, states, and more so local municipalities, implemented varying restrictions across the country.  

The second wave of the so-called Spanish flu spiked in the U.S. in November, but the pandemic was far from over, and a third wave would reach U.S. cities the following year. Still, Armistice Day on Nov. 11 brought cause for celebration — and some people complained that churches were closed while saloons remained open, according to Smithsonian Magazine.  

In Milwaukee, Wis., which was home to deeply observant German and Norwegian immigrant populations at the time, residents complained that churches were shut down during Advent, and churches were allowed to hold services for a special exception on Christmas Day.   In the Dec. 21, 1918, issue of the Ohio State Journal, the state’s acting health commissioner cautioned people to “beware the mistletoe,” recommending a “kissless holiday” for flu fighters. He also warned against attending parties or gatherings, given the risk of bringing infections home to family.    

“You will show your love for dad and mother, brother, sister and the rest of ‘em best this year by sticking to your own home instead of paying annual Christmas visits, holding family reunions, and parties generally,” the commissioner said at the time. “It goes against everything we love to do to not celebrate the holiday season … And we must nevertheless not do it. It makes me sad to say it.”  

Influenza Encyclopedia, a project edited by historian Howard Markel and produced by the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine, compiled century-old newspaper clippings that provide insight into what life was like for Americans then.    On Christmas Eve, the Nebraska State Board of Health categorized Spanish influenza as a “quarantinable disease,” according to the Dec. 24, 1918, issue of the Omaha Daily Bee. In Omaha, at least 500 homes were quarantined and none of the people who lived in a house where there was even one case of flu were permitted to go out “until four days after the fever has gone down.”  

“Big blue cards are now being printed to be tacked on the houses in place of the present ‘voluntary’ cards which merely signify danger,” the newspaper wrote. “A fine of $15 to $100 is provided for any violation of the quarantine order.   The country’s population was much smaller than it is now — just 103.2 million people lived in the U.S. in 1918, compared to the roughly 328.2 million today. And the Spanish flu would kill an estimated 675,000 people in the U.S before the pandemic finally subsided in 1919. It killed about 50 million people worldwide, and nearly one-third of the world population at the time became infected.  

“With no vaccine to protect against influenza infection and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections that can be associated with influenza infections, control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly,” according to the CDC.  

Read more at The New York Post

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