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Let's Lighten Things Up With a Look Back at Christmas During the Spanish Flu Pandemic

In 1918, people were much more familiar with epidemic disease.
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I think we all have to lighten up a little. Smithsonian brings us a look back at how the country celebrated Christmas during the influenza pandemic. Mainly, we celebrated by getting a little contagious.

Of course, Christmas is also a shopping season, and that was already true in 1918. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade wouldn’t start until 1924, and Black Friday mania was decades away, but retailers were beginning to realize that the holiday shopping season could make or break their year. “They pushed hard in November and December with advertising to get people to come shop,” Calder says. He says retailers were concerned about potential supply chain issues and urged shoppers to come in early in case items ran out. They also made sure to let potential customers know that they could deliver goods to those who were afraid to go out in public. Davis says store-owners’ desire for a strong Christmas season also figured in anti-mask sentiment. “They don’t want people to wear masks in the stores because they thought it was frightening,” he says.

However, in 1918, most people did comply, and one interesting explanation for that was that, in those days, people were much more familiar with epidemic disease.

Markel notes that epidemic disease was very familiar to the early 20th century public. Families, many of which had lost a child to diphtheria or watched a loved one suffer from polio, were generally willing to comply with some limitations on their activities. Most public health departments wore badges and had police powers, and this was generally uncontroversial. “They could forcibly quarantine you or put you on a quarantine station on an island,” Markel says.

(One famous example of this was North Brother Island in New York, where Riverside Hospital was built to house quarantined citizens. Its most famous detainee was "Typhoid" Mary Mallon, who lived there from 1915 until her death, from pneumonia, in 1938.)

Meanwhile, a weary country tried to rally itself for the holiday season through millions of individual decisions.

As municipalities determined what public activities should or shouldn’t be permitted, Calder says people were puzzling through their own choices about how to celebrate the holidays. “When you’re reading people’s diaries, they are fatigued obviously but also measured,” he says. “You don’t find people freaking out about this. They mourn the loss of traditional ways of celebrating the holidays, and they want to see relatives and are wondering whether they can or not.”

For the families of more than 100,000 men lost in the war, many dying from the flu, in the course of less than a year—and for those who had lost someone to the flu at home—it must have been a somber Christmas. But, for many others, the relief of the war’s end and the apparent decline of the pandemic encouraged many Americans to come together. “The mood was absolutely euphoric for most of the country,” Davis says. “There’s a pent-up desire to get out—that existed back then as well. The mood of the country was, ‘We’ve come through something terrible. We have something to be thankful for.’”

This, of course, resulted in a third wave of the pandemic after Christmas. I told you we were lightening things up here.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by Esquiremag.ph editors.

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About The Author
Charles P. Pierce
Charles P. Pierce, lead for Esquire Politics US, has been a working journalist since 1976. He is the author of four books, most recently 'Idiot America.' He lives near Boston with his wife but no longer his three children.
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