Christmas 1918: How Americans Celebrated the Holiday Season During the Last Epidemic

Americans celebrated Christmas more than a century ago during the last pandemic with some similar concerns to modern-day concerns, including considering whether to congregate with loved ones and the risk of fatal infection.

But in 1918, World War I was over and many soldiers were going home for the holidays to see the family. And with the federal government less prominent than it is today, and the arrival of the American Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1946 is still decades away, with states, and more local municipalities, having different restrictions throughout the country. Implemented.

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The second wave of the so-called Spanish flu spread to the US in November, but the epidemic was far away, and a third wave would reach American cities next year. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the November 11 Armistice Day celebration was the cause. And some people complained that the churches were closed while the saloons were open.

In Milwaukee, Wis., Which at the time was home to a deep following of the German and Norwegian immigrant populations, residents complained that churches were closed during the Advent, and services to churches for a special exception for Christmas Day Were allowed to keep.

In the December 21, 1918, issue of The Ohio State Journal, the state’s acting health commissioner recommended people beware “Amar Bell Beware,” a “kissless holiday” for flu fighters. He warned to attend parties or ceremonies, putting the family at risk of bringing the infection home.

The commissioner said, “You will show your father and mother, brother, sister and the rest of your love by sticking to your house instead of paying the best annual Christmas visits this year, staying at family reunions and parties in general.” . ” Time. “It goes against everything we love for not celebrating the holiday season … and yet we shouldn’t do it. It makes me sad to say that.”

In November 1918, a photograph provided by the Library of Congress shows a nurse taking the pulse of a patient in the Influenza Ward of Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. In 1918, thousands of American soldiers died in World War I and thousands of Americans died in a flu pandemic. There was a 46% increase in deaths that year compared to 1917. (Library / Library of Congress, file via Harris & AP)


Influenza Encyclopedia is a project edited by historian Howard Merkel and produced by the University of Michigan for the History of Medicine, which compiles centuries-old newspaper clippings that provide insight into what life was for Americans. .

On Christmas Eve, the Nebraska State Board of Health classified Spanish influenza as a “quarantine disease”, as of December 24, 1918, the issue of the Omaha Daily Bee. In Omaha, at least 500 homes were set aside and none of those who lived in a house where there was a case of the flu were allowed to move out “until four days after the fever subsided” .

The newspaper wrote, “In place of the current ‘voluntary’ cards, large blue cards are being printed at homes which only indicate danger.” “A penalty of $ 15 to $ 100 is provided for any violation of the quarantine order.

The population of the country was much smaller than it is now – there were only 103.2 million people living in the US in 1918, compared to about 328.2 million today. And the Spanish flu will kill an estimated 19,000,000 people in the US before the pandemic ends in 1919. It killed about 50 million people worldwide, and at that time nearly one-third of the world’s population was infected.

“With no vaccine to protect against influenza infection and no antibiotics that can treat bacterial infections, which may be associated with influenza infection, worldwide control efforts isolation, quarantine , Limitations of public meetings that were unequally enforced were limited to non-drug interventions such as good personal hygiene, disinfectant use and the like, “according to the CDC.

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During that time period, many American families could relate to losing a child from diphtheria or seeing a loved one suffering from polio, so more people were generally willing to follow the directions of public health departments Whose officers sometimes wore badges and possessed police powers. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, under certain circumstances, the authorities had the power to forcibly quarantine you or place you in a quarantine station on an island.

More than 116,000 Americans lost their lives during World War I, many of whom died after suffering from influenza. But with the men returning from European battlegrounds and other military bases, the country had an overall sense of excitement after democracy’s victory over authoritarianism.

In November 1918, US troops cheered after hearing the news of the signing of the ceasefire that ended World War I.  They are located in the northeast of St. Mihiel, France.  A similar celebration took place in all places where the Americans were in a state of objection.  (AP photo)

In November 1918, US troops cheered after hearing the news of the signing of the ceasefire that ended World War I. They are located in the northeast of St. Mihiel, France. A similar celebration took place in all places where the Americans were in a state of objection. (AP photo)

On the December 12, 1918 issue of the Boston Globe, the Boston Health Department warned of gathering for the holidays after seeing a spike in cases following the Victory Day rush and thanksgiving.

Even in San Francisco, which was known for one of the worst outbreaks, and because of the most stringent restrictions, people took to the streets on November 11 to celebrate the Armistice, a city-wide facade The end of the mandate came to curb transmission. When matters started to rise again at Christmastime, city officials wanted to enforce the mandate, but people protested.

Due to the massive economic losses, businesses were eager for the anticipated Christmas shopping rush – although tones and restrictions on such activities varied from place to place.

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For example, on December 20, 1918, the spokesperson, the issue of spokesperson-review published in Wash., Warned that an inspector in the city would swear in the city’s health office, but would not be paid by shopkeepers to ensure payment to shopkeepers. Crowd of corridors. Unlike the December 21, 1918, issue of the Salt Lake Tribune, which encouraged shoppers to patronize after the “great thrill and economy” practiced during the past year.

“We can all allow some links in this season of the year. The Lord has enriched us as a nation, and we don’t need to pinch and poke and close both the purse and the heart during the holidays.” . Do not forget that the Red Cross needs money with which to carry on its great work, “Problem said.

Although diary entries show that people still mourn the loss of traditional ceremonies, they are more likely not to miss close relatives, as it is for more families or living in the same house Was for extended families – far more from their hometowns than today when more Americans live.

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