The post-war, pandemic Christmas of 1918 featured Christmas tree shortages, 'handkerchiefs galore'

As we head into the 2020 holiday season, many people might be questioning how to celebrate when many are just struggling to cope everyday. No doubt, it’s been a tough year with the COVID-19 pandemic, economic struggles and racial unrest. But if history teaches us nothing else, it’s that we’ve gotten through tough years like this before. Over the next month, Forum reporter Tracy Briggs will take a look through The Forum archives at three different years in our past when we dealt with hardship and heartache — some of the toughest years in American history. Are there lessons to learn? In the first story, Tracy looks at the holiday season of 1918, when people were not only dealing with a pandemic but the aftermath of World War I.

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December 1918 was the first Christmas after the end of World War One. These troops were greeted by Mrs. Claus is Hoboken, New Jersey. Even though people all over world were grateful the war had ended, the biggest concern was the ongoing Spanish flu pandemic. Photo courtesy: National Archives
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FARGO — The Christmas season of 1918 started with a giant exhale. On Nov. 11, after four years and 116,516 American lives lost, the Treaty of Versailles was signed to put an end to World War I. The people of Fargo-Moorhead, like so many around the world, craved normalcy, a return to life before the conflict, before the sadness and loss. But unfortunately, 1918 wasn’t done with them yet.

The battle against the Spanish flu pandemic was still raging in the fall of '18 and, in fact, getting even stronger. While the virus was spreading in other parts of the world in the summertime, Fargo-Moorhead didn’t report any cases until October.

But when it hit, it hit hard with 100 cases reported on Oct. 4 and hundreds more in the coming weeks. Clay County Archivist Mark Peihl told The Forum, “It came in like a house a’fire.”

Most cases appeared to be mild, but not all of them, and with the highly contagious nature of the illness and the holidays approaching, Fargo’s health officer Dr. Paul Sorkness urged people to “cover their sneezes” and try to prevent a further spread.

“As a precaution all unnecessary public gatherings should be abandoned and all the affected persons isolated, and in the case of children they should be excluded from school,” he said in The Forum.


1918 was a difficult Christmas for many suffering with grief over the loss of a loved one from war and fighting to survive the Spanish flu. Forum archives

At Dr. Sorkness’ urging, the Fargo City Commission eventually ordered the closing of all churches, schools, libraries and theaters and banned all public gatherings and social events. Even though Moorhead wasn't hit as hard by the flu, its government instituted a similar closing order and gathering ban.

A perusal of stories from The Forum from October to the end of December 1918 shows people weren’t necessarily heeding the warning to avoid one another. The “Social Notes” section of The Forum was full of stories about family reunions and hostesses serving dinner to more than just a handful of guests. One vesper service at the YWCA that fall even reported having “good attendance.”

RELATED: 'I think about what life could have been like for them' - Local family devastated by the Spanish Flu does its part to fight COVID-19

The newspaper archives also lead us to believe that it was pretty much business as usual for the Christmas shopping season. In newspaper advertisements, merchants did not mention the pandemic, including any limited hours of operation, wearing masks or distancing while shopping.

Ads for Christmas goods in 1918, including this one from the Remley and Johnson store at 121 Broadway (where The Silver Lining Creamery is now), didn't mention the raging pandemic, but encouraged you pick up some Handkerchiefs along with your silk petticoats. Forum archives


Instead, ads suggested shoppers buy items like silk petticoats, handbags, neckties and toys for their loved ones.

The only perceived nod to the flu in ads was a mention of the practicality and perfection of handkerchiefs as Christmas gifts that year. Another ad encouraged the drinking of malted milk during the season to fight influenza.

Malted milk for a Christmas drink to beat influenza? Forum archives

There was at least one report of shortages that season. On Christmas eve, the paper reported that “many a little boy and girl in Fargo won’t have their usual Christmas tree tomorrow,” because of a lack of Christmas trees coming into the city.

Dealers in Minnesota said there were plenty of trees in the Minnesota woods. They just had trouble finding labor to cut the trees, presumably because some men that year were still nursing injuries from the war while others had fallen ill with the flu.

The paper warned those people who waited to buy a Christmas tree might be out of luck as Fargo was facing a shortage of trees because of a lack of labor to cut them down. Forum archives


The paper featured several columns about the solemnity of Christmas 1918 — the first post-war Christmas.

One December column titled “Fargoans will observe holiday in quiet manner” stated, “In many Fargo homes the day will be one of great rejoicings as the absent ones have returned from ‘over there’ and the family circle is again complete. To other families, where the chair will always remain vacant the consoling thought will come, that their loved ones have not died in vain and that they could not have made the supreme sacrifice in a better cause.”

Other stories and columns mentioned the need to reach and help the poor following the incredibly tough year of 1918 with the war and the flu.

A Dec. 21 column titled, “Tragedy, not joy may mark Christmas day in many homes in Fargo,” encouraged residents to provide “Christmas cheer” to friends and neighbors who wouldn’t need help in ordinary years.

“There are a number of cases in which very unfortunate conditions prevail. There are families hit by the influenza epidemic in which both the fathers and mothers were ill with the result that they are in bad financial circumstances,” the writer said.

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In 1918, this editorial in The Forum encouraged readers to assist those devasated by the Spanish Flu pandemic by donating food and clothing for families where both mothers and fathers were ill. Forum archives

While some families struggled financially that Christmas, the Fargo-Moorhead economy as a whole seemed strong.

One headline read, “Fargo has good building year despite war and high prices,” while banking numbers were solid.

RELATED: McFeely blog: 'Avoid tight clothes, tight shoes, tight gloves and eat onions" was advice to fight flu in 1918

In the fall of 1918, one well known Fargo banker is quoted in the paper saying of the end-of-year bank transaction reports, “these figures indicate generally healthy business conditions not only in Fargo but throughout the northwest. They firmly establish Fargo’s position as banking center of the northwest district.”

The other good news that Christmas was that their pandemic was nearly over. Cases were beginning to fall toward the end of the year, with a smaller wave peaking in March of 1919.

By the end of the pandemic, 50 million people worldwide died including 675,000 in the U.S. The official death toll in Minnesota was more than 10,000 and more than 1,700 in North Dakota. However, experts say, these official estimates are probably too low and the death toll was likely higher in the Dakotas and Minnesota.

By the Christmas season of 1919, some semblance of normalcy returned and people here were more than likely happy to put the post-war, pandemic Christmas of 1918 in the back of their memory.

Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience.
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