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Santa Claus Must Have the Flu


The 1918 influenza pandemic emerged in North Dakota weeks before the holiday season. Communities locked down, closing schools, churches, theaters and prohibiting public gatherings. One of the longest flu bans was in Grand Forks, lasting seven weeks.

By one estimate, 5,100 people died in the state as a result of the pandemic, which lingered into 1920.

Most cities reopened by Thanksgiving 1918, but other communities kept bans in place. Cavalier County’s board of health put the kibosh on Thanksgiving balls, celebrations, raffles, dances and gatherings of people from different communities. The county state’s attorney pointed to Grand Forks, which had become a flu hot spot after a peace celebration of the Armistice that ended World War One.

The Armistice and soldiers returning home made Christmas time particularly special that year. Across North Dakota, communities still welcomed Christmas despite the pandemic.

In Marmarth, in far southwestern North Dakota, children went into the hills to cut cedars for their family Christmas trees. The Methodist Episcopal Church put on the Christmas story in Sunday school, and its pastor held morning and evening Christmas services. Marmarth students held a speech program and a bazaar – selling gifts and goodies.

Marmarth’s revered pioneer doctor died from flu. People needing hospitalization were taken to Miles City, Montana. The Marmarth Mail newspaper estimated that half the town fell ill.

In Fortuna in far northwestern North Dakota, weddings, band rehearsals and church events went on after Divide County’s flu ban was lifted that fall. Before Christmas, the Fortuna Leader newspaper wrote, “Santa Claus must have the Flu. Haven’t heard any reports as to whether he is going to be in Fortuna this year.”

The flu broke up Christmas plans in Denhoff in central North Dakota. Sheridan County’s Board of Health had discontinued all public meetings, closed schools, and cancelled church services, funerals and auctions. Children were to stay at home or be subject to arrest.

In Bismarck, the Elks held a Christmas Day party for 1,000 boys and girls at the city auditorium. Bismarck kids’ Christmas vacation was cut short to just three days due to the fall flu closure of schools. Hospitals had Christmas activities for patients and staff. On this date in 1918, the Community Choral Club and the Salvation Army Band serenaded the two hospitals. The band also serenaded homes of the sick. 

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

The Marmarth Mail. 1918, October 25. Page 1
The Marmarth Mail. 1918, November 1. Page 1
The Marmarth Mail. 1918, December 27. Page 1
The Fortuna Leader. 1918, November 15. Page 4
The Fortuna Leader. 1918, December 20. Page 4
The Denhoff Voice. 1918, October 24. Page 1
The Denhoff Voice. 1918, October 31. Page 1
The Denhoff Voice. 1918, December 12. Page 1
The Denhoff Voice. 1918, December 19. Page 1
The Denhoff Voice. 1918, December 26. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, December 24. Pages 1, 6
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, December 26. Page 1
Grand Forks Herald. 1918, November 23. Page 1
Courier Democrat. 1918, November 21. Page 1

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