AS the coronavirus impacts festive celebrations around the world, a glance at the history books reveals that Christmas was nearly cancelled during the 1918 pandemic.


In many ways, life wasn’t so different then?

More than a century ago, the world was so very different, of course, but there was commonality. Concerns about the safety of family gatherings, gift-giving and attending church services were just as rife that December as now, with hopes of having a merry Christmas - weeks after the Great War ended - thrown into disarray.


Due to the Spanish Flu?

The First World War claimed the lives of some 20 million people by the time it ended in November 1918, but as the soldiers returned home, they brought the the deadly flu virus with them - thought to have incubated in the cramped conditions of the trenches.


The deadliest pandemic in history?

It is regarded as such - between 50 and 100 million people are thought to have died, with 500 million infected as it spread across the world.


Were there containment measures?

The government initially needed the war effort to continue in 1918 and despite knowing the killer flu was spreading, urged the nation to “carry on”. When the war ended, they began to offer advice on how to keep safe - leaflets on hygiene and avoiding crowds were issued, with some schools closed, mass gatherings cancelled and some shops shut - but a second wave took hold with the returning soldiers and "cancelling" Christmas became a real consideration, as hospitals were overwhelmed.


What happened then?

Aware of the particular need to be with loved ones that festive season, following years of separation and struggle, the government did not impose a lockdown and in so doing, cancel Christmas, but gave the responsibility to local authorities. Some schools were closed for around three weeks over the Christmas period, and some events - such as carol services - were cancelled.



Many were determined to make the most of Christmas out from under from the shadow of war and many events did go ahead, with shops reportedly busier than ever and families gathering together, and even although schools were closed, children still played together outside, so the virus spread.



The same situation was unfolding worldwide, including in America where after an easing of cases in the autumn, a rise in numbers ahead of Christmas saw cities - such as San Francisco - introduce a lockdown and mandatory mask wearing, which led to the formation of the “Anti-Mask League of San Francisco”. But again, many flouted the rules.


A third wave?

Likely to have taken root at Christmas, a third wave emerged in the spring of 1919 and many more lives were claimed.


Lessons learned?

Britain’s chief medical officer of health, Sir Arthur Newsholme, who had issued the first safety advice in October, was later criticised for not recommending mask-wearing and for not coordinating a national response. Of course, now, UK responses are in effect, but only time will tell whether the rules are abided by.