December 9, 2018

The Stay-at-Home Christmas of 1918

Above all other Christmases, 1918 was the biggest “stay-at-home” Christmas in the 20th century. This was due to the practicalities of dealing with the lethal Spanish influenza pandemic. Yet 1918 would also provide the world with one of the best Christmas gifts imaginable.

In 1918, the flu hit Yavapai County savagely. Many public places were quarantined and functions were cancelled. The paper was full of news of the untimely deaths of children and adults alike. Nearly everyone either lost somebody, or knew someone who did. In a few cases, entire families were lost to the flu.

In Prescott, schools were closed for several weeks. So were the bars, saloons, pool halls and other gatherings of entertainment. Fort Whipple was also put under quarantine.

Yet Prescott had it relatively easy compared to surrounding towns. The entire town of Jerome was closed due to the flu with police turning both car and horse around at the town's outskirts.

Likewise, Jerome Junction was also quarantined during Christmas and did not reopen until the following year. For a time there was no train service in or out of Jerome.

To the south, the town of Crown King was quarantined. To the north, things were particularly bad. Both the towns of Williams and Flagstaff were completely shut-down due to quarantine. Even the Northern Arizona Fair was cancelled that year.

The sad, yet inspiring story of the Christmas of 1937 in Prescott, AZ. The nutritional needs of the city's children was so acute, it was decided not to give candy that year.

Come Christmas, the flu had begun to run its course in Prescott. Fort Whipple was recently released from quarantine and plans went ahead for the municipal Christmas tree on the Plaza.

“The municipal exercises will not interfere with any of the church services,” the newspaper reported, “the hour having been set at a time to suit all and as this tree is for everyone within the confines of the city, it is foregone that it will prove a very popular event.”

The Boy Scouts, Chamber of Commerce, school teachers and others put together 50 Christmas baskets. “Sufficient funds were raised with which to remember each and every family requiring help this year,” the paper reported. “Toys and Christmas stockings filled with candy, nuts, and popcorn were made for each of the kiddies, this being attended to by the toy committee, made up principally of the teachers.”

However, the giving of gifts that year was generally muted. Due to World War 1, limits were put on Christmas shopping and labor. The national Chamber of Commerce, in cooperation with US Council of National Defense, decided that “merchants will not increase their work force…nor increase the normal working hours of their force during the Christmas season.” Part of the retailer’s advertising budget was to be spent to “assist in educating the consuming public to buy useful articles…and to send gifts early.”

Although the war ended on November 11th, these restrictions were not officially withdrawn until November 26th for “the reemployment to those normally engaged in the production of holiday material and in this holiday trade.” 

Story of the first anglo Christmas celebrated in Northern Arizona by the Whipple 35th parallel survey team in 1853.

The war also brought a serious sugar shortage. Earlier in the year, candy manufacturers were asked to use only half their usual amount. It wasn’t until a week before Christmas before a one pound limit on candy purchases was lifted.

Finally the big day arrived. Santa Claus made his appearance at the municipal Christmas tree at 7:30 pm. “To many it (was) the first time in their lives that they (witnessed) and enjoy(ed) a Christmas celebration in the open,” the paper related.

The Prescott band was there to play special Christmas music as well as “popular numbers also.” Soloists sang “Star of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” and a quartet from Fort Whipple also performed several numbers. Adding to the sentiment and the season, 1918 was a rare white Christmas.

With so much death from the war and the flu, many had reason to mourn. Yet people knew that the flu was running its course and the "war to end all wars" was finally over. "The boys" would spend one last Christmas overseas mopping-up and the real celebratory sigh would occur when they arrived home as veterans. But in 1918, those left to remember would receive one of the best Christmas gifts imaginable--Peace on Earth, goodwill towards men.

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