Although it isn’t easy, we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving amid a pandemic before. Here’s how we did it in 1918 — and what happened next

On Thanksgiving more than a century ago, many Americans were living under quarantines, and officials were warning people to stay home for the holiday.

More than 200,000 dead since March. Cities in lockdown. Vaccine trials underway.

And a holiday message, of sorts: “See that Thanksgiving celebrations are restricted as much as possible so as to prevent another flare-up.”

But it isn’t the message of Thanksgiving 2020. It’s the Thanksgiving Day notice that ran in the Omaha World Herald on Nov. 28, 1918, when Americans found themselves in a similar predicament to the millions now grappling with how to celebrate the holiday season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Every time I hear someone say these are unprecedented times, I say no, no they’re not,” said Brittany Hutchinson, assistant curator at the Chicago History Museum. “They did this in 1918.”

On Thanksgiving more than a century ago, many Americans, like today, were living under various phases of quarantines and face mask orders. Millions were mourning loved ones. And health officials in many cities were issuing the same holiday warning: Stay home and stay safe.

Giving thanks for WWI victory, beating pandemic

By late November of 1918, the U.S. – in the midst of the suffrage movement, Jim Crow and the tail end of WWI – was battling the ebbing second wave of the H1N1 influenza epidemic, also known as the Spanish flu.

The first cases were detected in the U.S. in March of that year, growing exponentially by the fall. In October, the virus burned through the nation. Dozens of cities across the U.S. implemented mandatory face mask orders and curfews and locked down for two to three weeks, temporarily closing schools, libraries, theaters, movie houses, dance halls, churches, ice cream parlors and soda shops. The virus killed an estimated 195,000 Americans during October alone.

As Thanksgiving rolled around, some cities were celebrating the relaxation of flu-related restrictions – partly due to successful opposition campaigns by retailers, theater owners, unions, mass transportation companies and other economically stressed stakeholders. Washington, D.C.Indianapolis, and Oakland had just lifted restrictions days before, and San Francisco was on the brink of lifting its mask mandate.

San Francisco, in particular, had one of the nation’s largest anti-masking campaigns, spearheaded by the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco, according to Howard Markel, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan and co-editor-in chief of The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919. Many people refused to wear masks and were arrested, and when the “line into the courtroom was so long, they laid off arresting people because the system couldn’t enforce it,” Markel said.

But Nov. 13, the San Francisco Examiner reported that “Thanksgiving Day will be celebrated in San Francisco by the discarding of gauze masks, if the present rate of decrease in influenza continues.”

A week later, San Franciscans ceremoniously removed their masks as a whistle-blow sounded across the city at noon. “San Francisco Joyously Discards Masks In Twinkling; Faces Beam As Gauze Covers Come Off At Time Fixed,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote on its Nov. 22 front page.

Resistance to public health measures was not as “vociferous or widespread as today,” but it was there, Markel said. “A lot of these rules and regulations were wrapped up in the patriotism of World War I, and most people followed them. But we don’t have that unifying situation right now. You would think the pandemic would be unifying.”

In some cities, Thanksgiving rituals brought a welcome sense of normalcy. Many Americans returned to religious services, performed charity work and went through with planned football games, parties and performances.

In Portland, a “grand reunion service” was planned for the Sunday following Thanksgiving, “in honor of the reassembling after being debarred from worship on account of the epidemic for the last five weeks.” Members of various congregations were “ready to greet each other after the long absence,” according to the Oregon Daily Journal on Nov. 16.

“The chimes of church bells will once more be heard on Sunday morning throughout the city, beckoning one and all to attend their chosen place of worship, where a double celebration will be held, first over the suppression of autocracy and, second, over the eradication of a frightful plague,” the paper wrote.

Rabbis, priests, pastors and more conveyed a unified message at that time, Hutchinson said – one of “forgiveness and compassion.”

“People are urging to be considerate of one another, to care for one another,” Hutchinson said. “There are messages of putting the smallness of the individual into perspective with the vastness of humanity.”

Other cities, however, were still trending in the opposite direction.

Lockdowns, quarantines on Thanksgiving

By the end of November, cases were rising in cities such as Atlanta, Denver, Louisville, Milwaukee, Omaha, Portland and Richmond. Many health experts attributed the “renewal of the grip epidemic” to festivities on Nov. 11 – later designated as Armistice Day – when thousands flooded the streets to celebrate the end of WWI.

“It is not the lifting of the closure ban that is the cause of spreading of the epidemic but the putting aside of all precautions and restrictions by the people of Denver when they celebrated on Victory Day,” Denver City Manager of Health and Charity Dr. William H. Sharpley told the Denver Post in a Nov. 21 story.

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SOURCE: USA Today – Grace Hauck