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Christmas in a Pandemic: What Celebrations in 1918 Spanish Flu Looked Like

Image from Oct 1918. Credits: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command via AP.

Image from Oct 1918. Credits: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command via AP.

Dance parties and social gatherings were cancelled. Churches shut their doors, and family members had empty chairs at the table.

2020 has been hard, and Covid-19 may have officially turned Grinch and stolen Christmas this year.

This, however, isn't the first Christmas humans are spending in isolation. It isn't even the first one in recent history. In December 1918, preparations for the first Christmas without war in four years took place in the midst of the worst pandemic since the Black Death.

The 1918-19 influenza, much like Covid-19, came in waves. The deadliest began in autumn, peaked in late November and continued through the first weeks of December. It struck hundreds of millions and killed tens of millions worldwide.

In 1918, the First World War had just ended and many soldiers were headed home for the holidays to see family. WHO and CDC aside, local municipalities, implemented varying restrictions across the America, essentially pausing the holiday season.

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."

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," reports Fox News.

In the Influenza Encyclopedia— a project edited by historian Howard Markel and produced by the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine— documents newspaper coverage of that pandemic filled Christmas.

One, in particular, could have been placed in 2020 with the dates and disease replaced, and it'd sound the exact same: "Various patriotic and charitable organizations, which were to have Christmas entertainments, find it necessary to postpone them on account of the influenza. If there is a decided change in the condition it may be possible to hold them later on. Many private parties have been planned. … The dances scheduled for Christmas week at the Town club are as follows: Mr. and Mrs. William Sawyer will entertain for their daughter, Miss Polly, Christmas night; Mr. and Mrs. Albert Elser will entertain for their daughter, Miss Elizabeth, Thursday night," from the Milwaukee Sentinel, December 22, 1918.

Some churches too, much like in 2020, had shut their doors - to effectively force quarantine, reports New York Times. Many families also celebrated Christmas with empty chairs at the table.

In the end, it may have been over a century since the last pandemic that stole Christmas, but this isn't the first one disrupted - and holiday cheer limited to only immediate family.