What the pandemic Christmas of 1918 looked like

Lendol Calder, a historian at Augustana College in Illinois and author of Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit, says it wasn’t just the debate over masks that seems familiar today. In some places, residents complained that officials shut down churches but left saloons open. The closing of churches was a major issue in Milwaukee, a city that took the pandemic especially seriously—and that was also home to deeply observant German and Norwegian immigrant communities.

“To have churches closed during the Advent-Christmas season was huge,” Calder says. “That was people’s social media, to go to church.”

But, Calder adds, even Milwaukee allowed churches to hold services on Christmas Day.

Of course, Christmas is also a shopping season, and that was already true in 1918. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade wouldn’t start until 1924, and Black Friday mania was decades away, but retailers were beginning to realize that the holiday shopping season could make or break their year.

“They pushed hard in November and December with advertising to get people to come shop,” Calder says. He says retailers were concerned about potential supply chain issues and urged shoppers to come in early in case items ran out. They also made sure to let potential customers know that they could deliver goods to those who were afraid to go out in public.