Updated: Jan 16
Our Christmas tree is decorated, and the colorfully wrapped presents are waiting underneath for our Santa believers. The only things that are missing are the usual holiday hustle and bustle of parties, travel and large family gatherings. And to a certain degree, the holiday spirit. In a moment of seasonal nostalgia following all the preparation, I was wondering what my grandmothers' Christmases were like during the Spanish flu. My maternal and paternal grandmothers were born in 1900 and 1902, respectively — making them 18 and 16 years old at the time of the first flu pandemic.
The onset of WWI and the "Spanish" flu
In April 1917, the US entered WW1 and on March 4 the following year, the first cases of the Spanish flu began to show up at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas. It’s been documented that a mess cook, Albert Gitchell, complained of a headache, sore throat and fever earlier that morning. By noon, there were over one hundred cases, a number that would quintuple within a week.**
The illness spread through the unprepared Camp so quickly that a hanger became a makeshift hospital used to care for the affected soldiers.
One month later when soldiers deployed, traveling via the Atlantic, they took the mysterious illness with them. The first wave of the Spanish flu had begun its wrath, with very little mention of it being made available to the public.
Due to President Woodrow Wilson’s Sedition Act of 1918, nothing negative could be said about the government, in hopes to boost morale and to stop citizens from railing against the war. Consequently, nothing was mentioned by the press when it came to the festering pandemic.
Spain was the only European nation that remained neutral during the Great War and, therefore, was not subjected to American or Great Britain's censorship. Because of this, their story was covered by international reporters and the flu that began in Haskell County Kansas became known as the Spanish flu.
While the war raged on, the relentless flu waged its own battle. By October, approximately 195,000 Americans had died during a second wave.
Meanwhile, back at home...
Wearing masks became mandatory and at the onset of the order citizens willingly complied. This was mainly due to the fact that they were already familiar with contagious diseases like diphtheria and polio and were painfully aware of what harm they could do.
Most masks were homemade, stitched together using several thin layers of cheesecloth in order to create what became the only barrier between the wearer and the deadly illness. Folks were instructed to boil the masks for ten minutes each day.
Not complying with mask regulations brought harsh punishment. Health department officials wore badges and had police powers. They could forcibly put you in quarantine, and that could mean being sent to a facility on an island, much like Riverside Hospital on Brother Island, New York that housed “Typhoid Mary” from 1915 until her death in 1938 — a risk most people were not willing to take.
"Social distancing" was encouraged and restrictions were placed on retailers, churches, theater owners and public transportation services. Consequently, in addition to the cost of the war effort, the economy was taking a huge hit because of the pandemic.
In the fall of 1918, a vaccine was in the works and the first doses were given in Rochester, NY, just days before Thanksgiving. In the weeks that followed, thousands were immunized. The vaccines proved to be useless, however, because scientists did not realize the culprit was a virus, not the bacteria the injections were designed to protect against.
Eventually, people began to run out of patience. Diaries from the time suggest that by the time the war officially ended, people had grown tired of face coverings and anti-maskers came out in force, arguing that the case numbers were going down.
With understandable celebratory euphoria, crowds flooded the streets on November 11 to celebrate Armistice Day, the official end to WWI. Weary Americans needed a cause to celebrate and the end of the war provided the perfect diversion — but this shift in focus would prove to be disastrous.
Yet for a brief moment in time, no one thought much about the pandemic. The boys were home and things felt normal again.
"Beware the Mistletoe"
San Francisco may have had one of the largest anti-masking populations, but those refusing to comply were, nevertheless, arrested. That is, until the lines to the courtroom got so long that arrests had to be halted. By Thanksgiving, under pressure by the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco, the city lifted the mask order, following the lead of Washington, Indianapolis and Oakland. On November 22, a whistle sounded at noon, ceremoniously signifying the mandate had been lifted.
However, cities like St. Louis and Buffalo were struggling with numbers that continued to climb since having lifted their bans. In Salt Lake City, two thousand homes had placards on their front doors, indicating that family members were infected. Thanksgiving was postponed until Christmas.
By the end of November, cases across the nation were seriously on the rise. Messages like those printed in the Ohio State Journal from their state health commissioner warned, “Beware the Mistletoe,” but not everyone was willing to comply, ushering in the third wave of the pandemic.
By January 1919, the deadly third wave claimed thousands more lives. Before the Spanish flu gave up its grip on humanity, a staggering 675,000 had died in America and 50 million lives were lost globally. Life expectancy in the US plummeted by a dozen years in just twelve months. More soldiers — both allies and enemies — died from the flu than from the war.
“And so this is Christmas…”
Christmas shopping was just as stressful then as it is in today’s pandemic. Stores were open, but retailers were concerned that required masks would frighten shoppers, and were therefore reluctant to insist on face coverings. Stores like Macy’s, which is now trying to survive its second pandemic,102 years apart, offered delivery of goods for those who were too afraid to brave the public exposure shopping would require.
Other merchants, like those in Fargo, North Dakota, did not mention the pandemic in any way in their holiday advertisements. Still, handkerchiefs were a hot-ticket item and ads for malted milk encouraged using the drink as a means of fighting off influenza. Silk petticoats, neckties and handbags were also popular gifts of the time for those fortunate enough to be able to afford them.
Cards were sent, wishing the best for family and friends during the difficult days ahead.
Children woke up on Christmas morning to find that Santa had visited, leaving presents like Tinker Toys, paper dolls and war games. Charlie Chaplin and Kewpie dolls also made their way under paper-ornament-adorned trees that had been laced with strings of popcorn and berries.
“Silent Night,” no doubt, could be heard in every home, as it’s known as the song that stopped WWI, if only for an instant, during a truce on Christmas Eve,1914. Walter Kirchhoff, a German officer and a tenor with the Berlin Opera, began to sing the song in German. His rich voice carried easily across the battleground at Belleau Wood, allowing a British soldier to hear the singing. He returned the song in English. The shooting stopped as the troops left the trenches and crawled to No Man’s Land, and when they all began to sing, both sides realized they were all some mother’s son, with much more in common than they knew before the power of music brought them together.
Garth Brooks beautifully captures the moment in his song, “Belleau Wood”
Heaven's not beyond the clouds,
It's just beyond the fear,
No, heaven's not beyond the clouds,
It's for us to find it here.
Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1918) suggests a typical breakfast menu during the era would likely include freshly baked biscuits, sliced peaches, maple syrup, fried hominy and coffee. Not a bad way to start the day, considering the average annual household income in 1918 was $1,518 and minimum wage was twenty-one cents per hour.
While that was not a lot of money, a dozen eggs was 34 cents, a quart of milk 9 cents and a loaf of bread was only 7 cents.
I wanted to share a recipe that was common during the early 1900s and came up with very little that I would even consider making today. But there was one in particular, the World War I Cake, that caught my attention. The British government released an official recipe of this cake because it contained no butter or eggs and could be sent to homesick soldiers.
War Cake Recipe
2 cups brown sugar
½ cup raisins
2 tsp shortening
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp salt
2 cups water
Bring above ingredients to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes. Cool for 1 hour.
3 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
Add above ingredients to the cooled mixture. Place in sheet pan (10 x 15) and bake for 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees. Mix ¼ cup powdered sugar and 1 tsp cinnamon and sprinkle over cake.
(Or omit powdered sugar initially and instead toast, butter and then sprinkle with powdered sugar and cinnamon, as shown here. I found this to be preferable, although not as authentic.) The cake is surprisingly moist if not overbaked.
Imagine the smiles on the faces of the soldiers when a homemade cake accompanied a letter from home...
“…Have yourself a merry little Christmas now”
Today, over a century later, my family struggles with the very same holiday concerns that my grandparents did during the Spanish flu. Though the children's gifts are now mainly electronic gadgetry, Christmas trees are decorated with elaborate ornaments and food is plentiful, celebrating the holidays brings with it the same risks and concerns that it did when my grandmothers decorated their simple trees. I guess it’s true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
While we wait for our 2020 pandemic to end, it helps to know that by the spring of 1920, the Spanish flu had vanished as mysteriously as it came. It had taken as many lives as it wanted, and those who were left were thought to have developed immunity.
As we gather in whatever numbers we find comfortable this year to enjoy whatever decadent foods (made with butter and eggs) we share, we need only to keep telling ourselves that this “new normal” won’t last forever. This virus, too, will eventually, reluctantly hand back to us the freedom to enjoy our pre-Covid lives.
Until then, we need only remember that our grandmothers survived the pandemic — we are living proof.
And if they could do it, so can we.
Merry Christmas, my friends,
** Differing reports, however, indicate that flu-like symptoms had been showing up in the Haskell County community prior to the Gitchell incident.
Current personal photos are my own; nostalgic photos were used with permission through subscription,123RF
Sources, and for more information:
"What Pandemic Christmas 1918 Looked Like"
"Christmas During the Spanish Flu Pandemic"
"What Missteps During the Spanish Flu Can Teach Us About Celebrating Safely"
"The Post-War Pandemic Christmas of 1918"
"The BOston Cooking-School Cookbook"
"American Breakfast Through the Decades"
"I Love Old Recipes"
"How We Celebrated During the 1918 Flu Epidemic"