The Lost Holidays Of 1918 And 2020

Erased, wiped out, altered to a great extent. Our tradition and celebration of two holidays have been deeply affected by the pandemic. It’s a shame.

These words describe the influenza pandemic of 1918 and the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Let’s take a closer look at the two pairs of days that usually help track our year.

The holidays

1918: Halloween and Thanksgiving

2020: Memorial Day and Independence Day

In 1918 Halloween essentially disappeared under the cover of bans. No parties, no gatherings, no trick-or-treating on the street. Exceptions proved the rule, violations showed the consensus. Thanksgiving was affected, too, but more with warnings of caution, carefulness, and modest observance. Nothing really banned, only earnestly suggested.

With the 2020 pandemic, Memorial Day was in the midst of closures and shutdowns. Independence Day proved completely different with a return of prohibitions or a delay of re-opening as cases (though not deaths) rise quickly. The softer side of late May became the harsher side of early July.


Three layers of timing exist. First, Halloween was on the very end of the worst stretch of deaths and cases in 1918’s pandemic. Thanksgiving followed a comparatively short reappearance of influenza—a dip, in other words—but the sense was that the worst had passed back before Halloween and definitely by late November.

Second, seasons matter. They affect people and life. The October-November span of 1918 introduced frost, chilly temperatures, and shortening amounts of daylight. With a cold rain and biting wind, a November day is forever a November day. It presses down on one’s soul and spirits regardless of everything else.

Third, and related to the reality of November, ahead of Thanksgiving in everyone’s minds in 1918 and typical years is winter and the end of the year. This very material fact had very meaningful consequences. Combined with a general belief that despite sharp spikes of influenza in various places, the time had come in 1918 to settle in, hunker down, and ride out the rest of the year. There was enough improvement in the pandemic that the next and last page of the calendar seemed to justify twin expectations of reductions of the year’s days and decline of the year’s calamity.

In 2020’s pandemic Memorial Day had a subdued atmosphere but the general mood was that the worst of April was fast receding into memory. Better days were ahead, a feeling encouraged by the timing of the overall start of summer at this point. A concluding display of cooperation and overall goodwill in late May was well-suited to the arrival of summer’s tradition and mindset; spring’s eternal hope is that hope springs eternal. The reality of Independence Day, however, was a clash of two opposing views—that the pandemic has made a ruthless reversal and had to be stopped, while at the same time the forced closures once thought to be temporary and lifted are being reinforced and continued with a far too punishing cost on normal life. Independence Day celebrations symbolized the friction in the core of the clash—community leaders sanitized or outlawed traditional fireworks events but individual residents often held their most raucous and earsplitting displays ever. Seen from the perspective in contrast to Memorial Day, Independence Day’s silence of official ceremonies and the explosions of private events were opposites with a perfect fit.

Like the late fall and influenza in 1918, a seasonal factor marks the current pandemic as well, though in a painfully different direction. In 2020, summer’s heat and dryness points only to the length of the year still ahead, of time still to be endured, of long days and nights left to be lived and yet to be filled. The extent of an undated future has only the rising number of cases to be seen inside it, a feature told and retold to the exclusion of all other aspects of coronavirus. Thus, fueled by the foul mood of Independence Day, the scene ahead is a desert landscape dotted with prickly fears and rocky assumptions. And into a rugged canyon goes the trail.

One last observation about timing of the paired holidays, a summary of sorts. Traditionally, Memorial Day is a quieter event with Independence Day serving as a wilder, more fun-filled event. The opposite is true for Halloween and Thanksgiving, with the former a fun-based event and the latter an introspective occasion. It is the unique conditions of the two pandemics that they are flipped in the placement on their respective timelines, resulting in part a change in the overall experience. In 1918 the fun would have come first (but is denied) and the quiet and introspective actually came last (and is modified). In 2020 the quiet and introspective would have come first (but is modified) and the fun comes last (and is denied on a community level and seized on at an individual level). This difference points to divergent futures.

The breakouts between

1918’s span of Halloween to Thanksgiving had three significant breakout moments where people moved beyond standing rules and regulations. The first was planned, formal, and organized—the mid-term election. Voting did show the effect of the pandemic; turnout was vastly lower than normal. The second and third breakout moments were its opposites: spontaneous, informal, unplanned, emotional, and overwhelming. The second and third were the public’s reactions to, first, an incorrect rumor of the World War’s end and, second, an accurate report of the World War’s actual end. In either case, people poured out of their homes and workplaces, crammed into streets, sidewalks, plazas, courtyards, and various public and semi-public spaces and places to voice their feelings. More fell ill within days.

2020’s span of Memorial Day to Independence Day had one significant breakout event with a still-rippling series of subsequent occasions. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota unleashed protests, mass gatherings, violence, and much more. People rushed forward, onward, and outward to express their feelings and opinions. Like 1918’s versions, participants didn’t stick to the rules and regulations. Unlike 1918’s versions, the impulses for participation, whether in keeping or breaking anti-pandemic policies, reflected anger, frustration, grievance, hatred, vengeance, and a dozen other emotions.

If we think of time flowing like a river—always ahead from the prior second of time or the previous inch of place where it was before—then we see a further effect of the pandemic on the second holidays of 1918 and 2020. While celebrations of the World War’s end occurred, they were, after all, celebrations. People were happy, relieved, and so on. It’s not difficult to see how such emotions are expressed some days later on Thanksgiving Day. Time flowed and the mood flowed with it, right onto millions of American holiday tables.

The upheaval beginning with George Floyd’s murder and following in associated racial and social unrest were destructive and debilitating, injuring American society and community as they occurred, including in the counter-reactions they produced. Taken together, they were antithetical and contrary to American outlooks at Thanksgiving 1918, while being nearly identical in their river-like movement, flowing as these emotions did into an Independence Day atmosphere, visible in one American community after another.

Next up

I’ve talked and written extensively about Warfluenza. It’s a concept I developed in researching and analyzing the 1918 pandemic and applying it to today. Warfluenza is the collision of a pandemic with the major public issue of the day and moment. In 1918, influenza collided with the World War. Americans of that era did not cope with influenza; they coped with Warfluenza, the inextricable combination of the deadly strain of illness with the dominant public trend and issue in their collective lives. The 1918 pandemic was Warfluenza.

Similarly, the 2020 pandemic is Warfluenza. Our version of Warfluenza consists of the collision of coronavirus with the Trump Presidency and the trillions of items and pieces contained in its orbit—supporters, opponents, former supporters, former opponents, neutrals, mainstream media, social media, interest groups, identity groups, and on and on. The illness may exist apart from the issue and trend but it is experienced and lived exactly through the blended reality of illness/issue/trend.

I assert that 1918 Warfluenza can tell us quite a bit about 2020 Warfluenza. That assertion is at the heart of my “Today In 1918” series.

My Warfluenza model shows that American life in the two pandemics suffered the loss or disfigurement of two important holidays. The condition of the holidays reflects the reality of Warfluenza in each year. Taking Warfluenza into account, here is a glimpse of the river ahead.

Post-Thanksgiving in 1918: moving along the reflective and overall positive mood of Thanksgiving, the consensus is that the wave of influenza ends in December 1918; no one truly knows why it dissipated; its return constituted another wave, a distinct wave; again, no one truly knows why it reappears; the next wave involved the American president directly and the defining issue of the presidency at that time; the implications are monumental surrounding the issue, the presidency, and how both unfold and sort out.

Post-Independence Day in 2020: driven by simmering tensions from Independence Day, the consensus is that the re-invigoration of coronavirus is a setback, whether a sharp dip or not; the consensus also is that a new wave is yet to occur but likely will occur; when the actual next wave emerges, it will contact an American society, culture, and national community that has already developed a checkered past with coronavirus—such a fact is enormously important and will have major effects on the next wave of Warfluenza; a fixed event is already in the future of our Warfluenza—the presidential election in November; that date is pre-existent of the next wave, another critically important realization; the presidency will be an even bigger part of Warfluenza’s next wave and in ways that would shock you now if you knew them in advance; the next wave will be less lethal but more disruptive, chaotic, polarizing, and demoralizing; the next wave will feature a tangible solution to the situation, the first thread in the fabric of a re-stitched patchwork of consensus ahead of a third wave.

Thank you very much for reading. Please feel free to contact me to discuss. I will soon return to my “Today In 1918/1919” series.