Christmas Contagion

A woman with dark hair pulled into a tight bun on the top of her head smiles at the camera.

Patricia Polacco (2017) Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In the 1950s, a small farming community in Michigan was hit by a wave of scarlet fever over Christmas and Hannakuh. The disease is caused by an infection of a bacterium known as Streptococcus pyogenes and is characterized by it’s tell-tale red rash, high fever, and sore throat. It was a common contagion throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries in the U.S., and so, not surprisingly, figures prominently in American literature about and for children in these eras. Most famously, perhaps, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women chronicled the outbreak of scarlet fever in their community during the Civil War, which ultimately took the life of the character Beth March (and Alcott’s own sister, Elizabeth). At its most severe, it could turn into rheumatic fever, causing lasting heart damage that was sometimes fatal, and it could impact other systems including kidneys and joints, leaving lifelong aches, pains, and disabilities for the many who survived.

The Michigan residents who struggled through their community’s holiday epidemic came out ok. At least that’s how it has been remembered by celebrated children’s book author and illustrator, Patricia Polacco. Polacco wrote about her experiences during the scarlet fever outbreak in her book The Trees of the Dancing Goats. Born in 1944, Polacco’s parents both came from immigrant families, her father’s family was Irish, and her mother’s Jewish family hailed from Russia and Ukraine. After her parents divorced, she spent much of her childhood with her maternal grandparents on their farm in Michigan, where the story of the Hannukah & Christmas epidemic unfolded.

Polacco struggled in school with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, which went undiagnosed until she was in high school. To deal with her early difficulties with academics, she turned to art and eventually went on to earn a PhD in art history. In her books, Polacco weaves story-telling, often inspired by her own childhood, with her beautiful illustrations. During that fateful holiday season over half a century ago, Polacco’s tale recounts how her Jewish family, who remained healthy as their Christian neighbors fell ill, stepped in to cut, decorate, and deliver Christmas trees and food for their community members who were too ill to prepare for the holiday themselves. Polacco’s experiences and memory of this time seem especially relevant and poignant this holiday season, and serves as a reminder that our differences can and should be our greatest strengths when we embrace them in ourselves and in each other. Have a safe and joyful holiday, everyone!