House Call with Carol Hughes

A Christmas like no other

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas in 2020 with the pandemic informing most considerations, it is tempting to think that we are hard done by. Perhaps we should think of it as a challenge while recognizing there are elements of a traditional Christmas that will be missing and others that will be different. Despite that, our experience likely won’t match that of Canadians during the Christmas of 1918. That was the last time there was a global pandemic over the holiday season.

Looking back at Christmas 1918, the World War had just ended, and some troops were beginning to find their way home. There was also a pandemic raging, the Spanish Flu which killed approximately 55,000 Canadians and as many as 50,000,000 people around the globe between 1918 and 1920. That wasn’t likely on people’s minds when they took to the streets in celebration of the Armistice signed on November 11. That event and the subsequent dispersal of homeward bound troops is said to have spread the flu across the country and within communities.

The Spanish Flu remains the deadliest pandemic ever recorded and, unlike COVID-19, the bulk of those killed were in their 20s and 30s. There were many similarities to our current situation as well, including recommendations for maintaining physical distance and wearing masks. Back then there were anti-mask movements, like we are seeing now. According to historical accounts these efforts may not have been as violent or mean-spirited as some we are experiencing today. While social media has made it easier to amplify some of the most contentious parts of this pandemic, it is important to recognize the diversity of opinion that exists around public health recommendations is nothing new.

Our experience now only offers a glimpse of the hardship households endured 102 years ago, advances in many areas, especially telecommunications and technology, have made it significantly easier for us to work, shop, amuse ourselves, and stay connected. Additionally, we are not dealing with communities that were shattered by the ravages of war on a generation of predominately young men. Despite those differences, time spent reading wartime letters reveals an optimism that was clearly fueled by the end of the war and the weight that added to the usual Christmas greeting of ‘peace on earth.’

Today our sacrifices are different, but it would be foolish to suggest they are less meaningful. Meaning is rooted in our efforts and how freely those flow, not necessarily by how difficult or arduous they are. We are being asked to make a great deal of change to our lives and one of the most difficult has been to limit contact with those outside our households. Over Christmas this will be extra challenging and critical to our efforts for the quickest end to the pandemic. 

It’s clear that the social limitations are among the most difficult elements of this pandemic, but we might recall that at Christmas many of us are driven by a desire to help others. That dovetails nicely with the sentiment that today’s sacrifice will offer us a brighter future. It doesn’t mean we won’t be frustrated by the exercise. 

Christmas and the holiday season are arguably the most sociable time of the year, but we have some amazing ways to stay connected that were unimaginable in 1918 that can help us along the way. And we can remember that there have been potentially more difficult Christmases that we worked our way past. I am confident that we will with this one as well.

From my family to you and yours, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!