Monique Keiran: Spanish Flu pushed Thanksgiving again to December

When Prime Minister Trudeau recently suggested that travel and gatherings for Thanksgiving may no longer be possible this year, some historians may have experienced déjà vu.

Trudeau warned in a national televised address on Sept. 23 that Canada was at a crossroads with COVID-19. Cases are on the rise in some provinces and pandemic conditions are expected to worsen in the months ahead than they were when the crisis began in March.

“It’s all too likely that we won’t meet for Thanksgiving,” he said, “but we still have a chance at Christmas.”

A little over a century ago, when another major pandemic hit the world, a similar message was spread. That year the government postponed Thanksgiving.

But it wasn’t a big deal. At the time, Thanksgiving was a moving festival in Canada. The date of the holiday, first observed in November 1879 as the annual national event in Canada after the Confederation, was set annually. It hadn’t occurred until December 6th in a few years and even during the week.

It took hard lobbying for the railways to get there on Monday. They wanted a long weekend holiday to encourage people to travel – by train of course – to visit family. In 1908 the government bowed to the pressure.

But the date of Thanksgiving was still announced annually. The postponement of the official harvest festival to December 1, 1918 was not an event.

Besides, people had other things on their minds.

Thanks to a seemingly endless First World War, they had already experienced four years of restrictions and bad news. Although the breakthroughs by Allied forces on the distant fronts that began in August 1918 gave hope that the fighting might eventually end, the war continued, its end uncertain.

Sons, fathers and brothers continued to die in the fighting. In the event that someone briefly forgot, telegrams frequently arrived in every neighborhood informing families of the deaths of their loved ones, and the newspapers published daily lists of those killed or missing.

The deadly pandemic influenza was the main reason Thanksgiving was postponed in 1918. Health officials understood that limiting public gatherings slowed the spread of the flu. In Victoria, schools, churches, libraries, theaters, colleges and dance halls have been closed, and community gatherings have been banned until November 20.

The Board of Trade has canceled its quarterly meeting, the Canadian Club canceled its lunch with four visiting Federal Cabinet Ministers, Women’s Aid has postponed its annual Thanksgiving campaign for bed linen donations for the Royal Jubilee Hospital, and there have been meetings and demonstrations to kick off the annual Victory Loan Campaign set.

But by November – then as now – the tiredness of the pandemic had set in. Appeals have been made to reopen theaters for “essential” entertainment. Some sporting events have started. On November 8, enthusiastic crowds lined the downtown streets to take part in a Victory Credit Parade that anticipated the end of the war. And on November 12, the day after the armistice was signed, the Anglican bishop and up to 1,000 worshipers defied the ban on gathering for an outdoor Thanksgiving ceremony on Cathedral Hill.

The official Thanksgiving Day took place three weeks later. At the request of the Dominion government, December 1st was celebrated “in national gratitude for the blessings of peace as a result of the Allied Nations’ great and complete victory over the Central Powers,” according to a Canadian newspaper.

Starting in 1921, the government combined Thanksgiving Day and Armistice Day, celebrating both on Monday the week of November 11th. However, the arrangement in which celebratory commemorations competed with harvest fairs and sporting events was viewed as insufficiently respectful of veterans. Remembrance Day got its own annual national holiday in 1931, and Thanksgiving was again released on the fall calendar for walking around on Mondays.

In 1957, Parliament designated the second Monday in October as Canada’s annual national harvest festival. Since then we have been dependent on this day for our break in the middle of autumn. We are now planning weeks in advance to spend with family and friends. We book trips and short breaks for the long weekend.

However, this year we’re traveling less and keeping the number of those who share our turkey or turkey substitute celebrations smaller. We may opt for virtual meetings instead, like Dr. Canada’s chief health officer, Theresa Tam, urged last week.

As for our Christmas shot, let’s wait and see. In 1918, the children at Cowichan Station waited for Christmas until February 15, 1919, when Santa Claus finally recovered from the flu.

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