The Christmas season in 2020 has a few things in common with Christmas in 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic. Namely, that many families will be staying home, and not celebrating together in-person this year, to try to contain the spread of COVID-19. That’s what Americans also did in 1918 to keep family members safe from the flu pandemic.
That is to say, the holidays are tough now, but not entirely unprecedented. As families prepare for celebrating the holidays during a pandemic, a lot of folks are having difficult conversations about what it means to be together this Christmas season: and that means that for many, this year could be the first in a long time where many families aren’t able to be together in-person. That’s a hard pill to swallow, especially since lots of families haven’t been able to see each other in-person for nearly a year, and it hasn’t been an easy year at that.
In 1918, Americans were facing similar difficult questions and scenarios to what we are now. According to a new article in Smithsonian magazine, the Ohio State Journal published an article about the flu on Dec. 2, 1918, from the local health commissioner, who warned quite evocatively: “Beware the mistletoe.” The commissioner added, “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.”
This is in keeping with advice from Dr. Fauci, who said that for the first time in over 30 years, that he will be skipping out on holiday celebrations with his children due to COVID-19 precautions. Fauci underscored the crucial point that even small gatherings with those who don’t live in the same household can be risky for COVID-19 transmission, saying, “We’re starting to see infections that are emerging from what otherwise seemed like benign settings, namely a typical gathering of 10 or so people in a social setting,” according to CNBC.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the flu pandemic in 1918 are not identical, of course. As Smithsonian points out, the flu pandemic had peaked in the fall of 1918, although it was beginning to climb towards a third wave, whereas in December of 2020, COVID-19 cases are now continually surging across the country and death rates are rising this month. In 1918, the CDC had not yet existed, so decisions about how to maintain the spread of disease were made largely at the local level. For cities like San Francisco during the holiday season in 1918, folks had just emerged from a strict lockdown, and there were some anti-maskers — yes, really — at that time who felt that their personal freedoms had been infringed upon.
But, Smithsonian notes that mask-wearing and compliance were not politicized in 1918 as it is in 2020. Moreover, WWI had just ended by the time that the holidays rolled around in 1918, so many families felt an extra urge to be together in-person. It mostly felt natural and necessary for families to gather together then, but the article suggests that in-person gatherings likely contributed to the third wave of the flu pandemic. Similarly, Thanksgiving celebrations contributed to a rise in COVID-19 cases this year in many parts of the country, and health officials worry that gathering together for Christmas could burden hospitals even further. It looks like “Beware the mistletoe” is still solid advice in 2020.