How Did the United States Get Through the Pandemic Christmas of 1918?

There are more than a few parallels to 2020

Red Cross Christmas poster
A Red Cross poster from 1918.
VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

A holiday where large gatherings were discouraged. A controversy over wearing face masks. And a Christmas like none in recent memory. No, we’re not talking about 2020. A new article by Livia Gershon at Smithsonian Magazine looks back over a century to see how the U.S. managed Christmas during the influenza pandemic of 1918 — and found a lot of areas of overlap with the present moment.

Confusion and debate over the best way to celebrate a holiday in the midst of a pandemic aren’t the only areas where 1918 and 2020 echo one another; there’s also the abundance of memes that people in both years used to make the best of a difficult time. But in reading Gershon’s article, the parallels related to the holiday season are especially deep.

For one thing, just as Thanksgiving gatherings led to an increase in cases this year, San Francisco eased up on its public health measures just before Christmas 1918, only to find influenza cases on the rise in the weeks that followed.

Mask mandates also sparked controversy at the time, as did governments putting restrictions on churches — both of which also have uncanny echoes of the present moment.

While 2020 has prompted a number of families to pause large celebrations, their counterparts in 1918 had an even more difficult decision to make. Many families, Gershon writes, were welcoming people home who had fought in World War I, further complicating matters.

Reading about the similarities between 1918 and today can be a little unsettling, but there’s at least one reason for optimism. Eventually, the 1918 pandemic was brought under control and life returned to normal. Hopefully that will also serve as a sign of things to come.

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