Christmas During the 1918 Spanish Flu

  • Kelly Shen ’23, image from Unsplash.com

“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.”

These are the words of a commissioner in 1918, warning people to stay home during the deadly Spanish flu. Right now, Americans’ main concerns are about the safety of gift shopping, family gatherings, and church services. It was the same in 1918. How did their Christmas stay the same and also differ from ours?

Christmas 1918 was not the same as our current Christmas. The pandemic had already peaked in the U.S. in the fall of 1918 as part of the disease’s second wave. Meanwhile, this week the deaths attributed to Covid-19 in the U.S. are the highest they’ve ever been, showing no signs of waning as the holiday approaches. But the flu also killed far more people (675,000) than Covid-19 has to date, in a country that was much smaller, population-wise, at the time. And it wasn’t over by any means. In some cities, a third wave was already starting as Christmas approached. 

A century ago, the federal government held much less authority and power than it does today; the CDC, for instance, wouldn’t get its start until 1946. Decisions about how seriously to take the disease fell to states and, especially, municipalities.

 1918 San Francisco took it quite seriously, implementing a strong mask mandate in the fall as well as measures that’d be described today as social distancing. After cases rose sharply in mid-October, the city locked down harshly; the measures worked to keep the flu at bay and, a month later, the city reopened and dropped the mask mandate. But the flu was not done with the city yet. Come Christmastime, the cases were again on the rise, and residents, having finally escaped from the pandemic shutdown, were not eager to go back. The city wanted to implement the mask mandate again, but the people resisted, as some said it was too much trouble. Like today, there were objections to mask wearing. 

Mask wearing wasn’t the only thing that was hotly debated, there was also the subject of churchgoing. In some places, residents complained that officials shut down churches but left saloons open. Church was your social media, you went there not just to worship but also to catch up with others in the community. It was especially upsetting for those who observed Advent and Christmas, as it is one of the most important times of the liturgical calendar. 

Christmas was also shopping season, and everyone knows holiday shopping is a big deal. The Spanish Flu had a big impact – Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade would not start until six years later in 1924, and Black Friday was eons away. Retailers also began to realize that holiday shopping would make or break their year. In response, they decided to do heavy advertising in November and December to urge shoppers to visit their stores. Strangely enough they also didn’t want their shoppers to wear masks because it would be “frightening”. However, most people still wore masks, having had a strong faith in their public health officials and in science even if it wasn’t as advanced as today’s discoveries. 

Finally, the response to the pandemic during the holiday season was much less frenzied. People were saddened with having to stay at home rather than go out and celebrate Christmas, but were still fatigued with the pandemic. However, most families lived together; extended families often lived on different floors or right next to each other, enabling Americans to still unite for a family Christmas dinner.

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