A 2021 Christmas like no other in history… or is it?

At this-time-of-year, bombarded with ‘happy’ and “merry” from every direction, an inward/outward look into what and where we are at end of 2021 is worth exploring.

Happy greetings abound in cards, store windows, e-mails. Colourful lights flash happiness everywhere. Beaming Santas, frolicking reindeer, smiling snowmen, and scenes of ‘happy’ family gatherings surround us. Messages/ Texts wish happy Christmas, happy holiday, happy new year and while we’re at it – happy life!

Too much happy? Excessive? Demanding too much happiness of ourselves and others? Is narrowing expectations to this single emotion good for us? Might other forces want to crash our festive celebrations? As a third extraordinary year of Covid-19 bodes more difficulties, complications, trials, and tribulations – might we do better to challenge this ‘happy’ time? True, some of us will welcome guests into our castles, but we may have to share home-sweet-home with other not-so-pleasant visitors.

These are desperate times, too many of us living lives of quiet desperation. Has it ever been this bad, we ask? Has humanity ever been threatened with anything similar to the apocalyptic threat of Covid-19? Yes, it has, and worse, much worse. In retrospect, the Spanish Flu pandemic of the early 20th century proves that today’s crisis is neither new nor unique, and apparently much-less-deadly.

That was then…

A century ago, 1918, the advisory – Beware the mistletoe – warned about the lingering pandemic: “Not only should you resist the temptation of holiday kisses and hugs, but you shouldn’t even be at social gatherings where it might come up.” Sounds familiar? In hindsight the catastrophic flu of 1918-1919 remains the deadliest event in modern history, apart from world wars, taking 50 million lives from 500 million infections. To date, 5.31 million have died from Covid-19 world-wide since March 2020; from 271m infections), a drop-in-the-bucket. Fatal to 30,000 Canadians (1.86m infections), and 798,000 Americans (50.1m infections), Covid-19 pales in comparison to tragic losses from Spanish Flu.

We’re confronting critical periods of humankind’s history, engendering reflection on how the planet survived the last pandemic, origins of which are debated; England, France, China, U.S. considered possible sources. Naming it the Spanish Flu resulted from Allied media censorship by the military during World War I, suppressing public reports of the virus and its high tolls among soldiers. In neutral Spain the media publicly signaled high incidences of death from the illness, thus the Spanish link. The flu’s pandemic’s effects cannot be underplayed. Children sang haunting playground nursery rhymes: ‘I had a little bird, its name was Enza, I opened the window, And in-flu-enza.’

Just weeks after Christmas 1918, the virus’s third wave swept Europe, lasting to Summer 1919, adding substantially to death-tolls. Sounds familiar? Moving fast, it killed entire families, hours or days after symptoms, with high mortality among children five-and-under, adults-20-40 and over 65. Patients struggled to breathe as fluid filled lungs; starved of oxygen faces, lips, ears, fingers, toes turned blue. Social-economic inequality exacerbated suffering, also true of Covid-19.

December 1918, after three Christmases with little to celebrate during World War I, Europe faced constraints comparable to Covid-19. In its path, the flu infected one-third of the world’s population, costing 228,000 lives in Britain alone. Mysteriously, by December 1918, weekly British deaths dropped to 1,029, after reaching November deadly-peaks when 8,000 people died first-week alone.

With no explanation for these dramatic drops, deprived of peacetime Christmas for three years, residents were left with difficult decisions – to meet with family over the holidays? Many did. Gift-buying rushes were commonplace. Shopkeepers applied one-in-one-out practices now familiar to us as social-distancing.

Some businesses closed or prohibited those under 14 from entering. Dancehalls, cinemas, theatres were shuttered. Schools with significant infections closed, but churches stayed open for worship. No central lockdown was imposed but local councils had power over closures.

To Canada, come from away

The 1918 pandemic came to Canada with returning troops, infecting even remote communities, wiping out entire villages. Labrador, Québec, First Nations reserves were hard-hit. Quarantine measures failed. Overextended medical facilities compelled set-ups of infirmaries in schools and hotels. Unlike most strains of influenza, dangerous for those with reduced immunity (elderly, very young, pre-existing conditions), the 1918 flu inexplicably killed young and hearty alike. Pneumonia developed by flu-weakened patients, rather than influenza itself, was the major cause of death. Long-term consequences, for some, included parkinsonian syndromes and marked tremors.

The pandemic brought death, suffering and social/economic hardship. Children became parentless, families lost wage-earners. Businesses profits declined from lack of demand and/or inability to meet demand due to reduced work forces.

To control the spread, Canadian municipal governments closed all except necessary services. Quarantines and public mask-wearing became mandatory. Although Canadians unhappily accepted these restrictions, they defied federal government requests for postponement of end-of-war-celebrations. Positively, the pandemic gave birth to Canada’s Department of Health in 1919. As good as these measures were, it was too-little-too-late for Canadians in tens of thousands.

And this is now…

Christmas 2021 isn’t Christmas 1918. No cures/vaccines came from the Spanish Flu. Its sudden disappearance proved as puzzling as its origins. Herd immunity? Less-lethal mutation? Simple burn-out? Running out of new live hosts to infect? Most crucial, now that there’s another contagious and deadly pathogen in the world, have we learned enough to make better choices? Home for Christmas?

Third/fourth waves of Covid-19 are out there. U.S. deaths are the highest ever, showing no signs of waning. But the Spanish Flu killed far more Americans (675,000) and Canadians (50,000) in much smaller populations, than has Covid-19. It isn’t over by-any-means. A world-wide Omicron wave has already struck whether Christmas likes it or not.

Despite serious variant increases, we don’t need to pour salt into wounds by recapping the misery touching every part of the globe, or citing divisiveness and anger tinging pandemic-altered days for so many. Struggling to get through to 2022, even those who have it relatively good are fearful of incoming uncertainty. Unavoidable job losses portend toward overwhelming financial/social challenges.

To pay bills, savings/retirement nest-eggs may have to be tapped. Lost gigs, pay-cuts, investment-gutting of portfolios have wreaked havoc, provoking worries about mortgages, personal illness or that of others, and more. Need we throw in the scourge of galloping inflation of 2021? Amid this misery, is it futile to talk Merry Christmas/Happy New Year?

Understandably, as Christmas rapidly approaches, generous giving may not suffice to deflect Covid’s negative effect on our celebration-and-gifting-traditions. Yes, surveys show that people feel like Christmas 2021 will be normal, but a majority of hosts will only invite double-vaccinated guests and two-in-five will demand Covid-19 tests for visitors, with 25% admitting anxiety about carriers.

Begging your pardon, Covid-19 be damned

Sadly, faint-of-heart folks will show love for parents, brothers, sisters by staying home, with others risking family-reunions and parties, vaxxed or not. No doubt, most will exercise “caution” until we’re out of the woods, whenever that may be.

In the meantime, let’s affirm that sooner or later, in tomorrows around the corner or far-off in the unfolding-of-the universe, humankind will fundamentally re-embrace the best of yet to come, prevailing with the hope, courage, strength, humility and grace of the good news delivered by the child in the manger, for there is no Christmas without Christ and no Christ without Christmas … the truth of which will never be lost to time, pandemic or not …

On behalf of The Laval News, I’ll impose on John Lennon for last words, in his timeless insight into what’s ahead for humanity:

“And so, this is Christmas for weak and for strong, For the rich and the poor ones, the road is so long. A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.”

Renata Isopo