Like today, the safety of gift shopping, family gatherings and church services was on Americans’ minds… back in December of 1918. Since COVID has come on the scene, there have been many comparisons made between the current pandemic and the flu epidemic of 1918, the most severe pandemic in our recent history. So, I thought I’d look at what was going on back then around Christmas time.
As outlined in an article last year in Smithsonian Magazine, in the fall of 1918, the epidemic had already peaked in the U.S. as part of the disease’s “second wave.”
“In some cities, a third wave was already starting as Christmas approached,” says historian and World War I expert Kenneth C. Davis. Christmas at the time was already a major shopping season. Federal oversight on health was not yet institutionalized. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention would not be formed until 1946. “Decisions about how seriously to take the disease fell to states and, especially, municipalities,” says Davis.
As another point of difference, Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, says, “The question of how to guard against the flu was not politicized in the way that anti-COVID measures are today.” Markel also reminds us 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.”
It fell upon different regions of the country to sound their warnings. On Dec. 21, 1918, The Ohio State Journal published the following message from the state’s acting health commissioner cautioning about close contact during the lingering pandemic: “Beware the mistletoe.” The warning goes on to tell readers to not only resist the temptation of a holiday kiss but to avoid social gathering where it might be encouraged.
Back in 1918, epidemic disease was not only very familiar to the public but the nation had just emerged from a World War which, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, cost the lives of 116,516 American soldiers. “For those who had lost someone to the flu at home, it must have been a somber Christmas,” writes Smithsonian reporter Livia Gershon.
There may be no meaningful comparison to be made between Christmas today and so long ago. We are in the second holiday season affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it feels very different than the first. As reported by MSN, a new CNBC poll suggests this year has more of the look and feel of a pre-pandemic holiday than 2020. In the area of gift-giving, spending is up this holiday season compared with last. “The poll shows that, on average, people are planning to spend a little more than a $1,000 on gifts this year,” writes MSN.
As reported by CNBC, Americans broke all records for Giving Tuesday this year. “It’s estimated that 35 million U.S. adults participated in 2021, with total gifts of $2.7 billion, a 9 percent increase from 2020… despite a recession; giving by foundations surged, and gifts to a variety of nonprofits providing social services, supporting people in need and protecting civil rights grew the most,” they say.
As reported by Kara Gavin, research and policy media relations manager at the University of Michigan for Medical Xpress, new findings from the National Poll on Healthy Aging of people over 50 show a sizable minority are feeling a lot of stress, but also reveal that “most of them are finding joy and staying resilient amid the pandemic.”
The poll also reenforces the significance of relationships with others as an important source of joy. At the top of the list are friends (cited by 80% of poll respondents), children (70%), and spouses or partners (64%), followed by co-workers (61%).
The New York Times reports, “Millions of Americans are expected to travel over Christmas and New Year’s, with some booking sites, such as Hopper, predicting that even international travel will approach pre-pandemic levels.”
It feels like we are getting back to normal, but not so quick. It remains more of a wish than a reality. With the omicron variant’s arrival in November, we are amid another surge in cases. The numbers are climbing so fast that any figures I give are sure to be dated by the time this is published. The continually morphing pandemic has arrived just in time to dampen a soaring holiday spirit. It is a painful reminder that we still are living in the COVID-19 era.
People still need to take commonsense measures to protect themselves and others. Avoid when you can poorly ventilated, crowded environments. If you are traveling by land or air, it is advised that you pack as if you are going to get stuck — because who knows?
I offer you a wish and a prayer from my wife Gena and I that you and yours remain safe, and that you extract all the joy and happiness you can gather during the holidays and beyond.