A Plague of Gesundheits

Sometime over the past few weeks, influenza descended in full force on our fair city, stretching across the region, flooding our doctors’ offices, our schools, and our homes. One area school even recently reported nearly 200 student absences in a single day. I probably don’t need to tell you there’s been a lot of sneezing, and a fair number of “God bless yous.”

For quite a while now my social media feed has been filled with friends lamenting that their households have fallen victim, warning those whose children have had social contact with theirs might just be next, and offering a sort of wish for good health in spite of the odds.

Does it make me a bad person that I think this is actually kind of a relief from the political squabbling? photo credit: BC Gov Photos Take a shot at protecting yourself and others from the flu via photopin (license)

And, really, that’s what that wonderful phrase “God bless you,” is really probably all about. Though no one can say for certain exactly where it came from (even Snopes.com, which I have to assume at least tried), the most often related story attributes the custom to Pope Gregory I who took over for Pelagius II, when the latter fell victim to the plague in 590.

This was the tail end of what history remembers as the Plague of Justinian, possibly the first recorded instance of bubonic plague (like you might even today encounter in a National Park), or at least something related to it. The exact bug behind the pandemic probably doesn’t matter all that much. What we do know is that it killed quickly, and it started with a sneeze.

Gregory didn’t exactly want to be named Pope, but he received the title by acclimation, and soon set to work ministering to the stricken people of Rome. He prayed for deliverance from sickness and encouraged repentance, even organizing a large procession to the Vatican, in which the faithful gathered in a large coughing, sneezing crowd in order to share in worship and germs.

Allegedly Gregory also began the practice of offering a blessing for good health upon a person who sneezed, thereby praying away the plague. The Justinian Plague didn’t really extend beyond Gregory’s stint as Pope, so maybe there was something to his approach. Or maybe the bug had simply run its course through the population.

Portrait of Pope Gregory I
If he were around today, I’ve no doubt Pope Gregory would encourage holy flu vaccination. By Unknown – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Either way, the tradition of saying, “God bless you,” or wishing someone good health (with a Gesundheit or similar expression) is so deeply ingrained in our behavior pattern now, it’s hard to remain silent when we hear a sneeze.

The question is, I suppose, does it help? Sadly, I don’t know that anyone has ever researched that. But what does help is vaccination. Now, fortunately for our family, we are well vaccinated folks, so when it was our turn last week our symptoms were relatively mild. We dealt with a few aches, some low-grade fevers, a good helping of fatigue, and plenty of coughing and sneezing and gunk. But all in all, it wasn’t too bad, with only my oldest developing a secondary ear infection, easily taken care of with an antibiotic.

All I can say is there is not nearly enough of this going around at that middle school. photo credit: BC Gov Photos Take a shot at protecting yourself and others from the flu via photopin (license)

For us, then, this week has been a return to our regularly scheduled program. Everyone has gone to school or work, and my oldest is off and running, heading into the next big thing. For him, that means making a movie with several of his friends to enter into the school district’s upcoming film festival.

For weeks now they’ve been working on a script and costumes, rehearsing lines, and practicing stunts. I admit I’m not entirely sure what the film is about. The plot keeps changing, though I’m fairly certain it involves a wizard or two. Their biggest hurdle in getting it finished has been that members of the crew keep getting sick.

But I’m looking forward to seeing the completed project and I imagine it will work out just fine. After all, the first surviving film copyrighted in the US, now considered by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” consists of nothing more than 5 seconds of a man sneezing.



And speaking of ongoing creative projects, I currently have two books projects underway that will be published this year. If you’re interested, you can check them out on this recently re-installed book page.


15 thoughts on “A Plague of Gesundheits

  1. I was just complaining about my allergies this morning and have also sneezed quite a bit, although my dog is the only one with me, and I haven’t taught him how to say God Bless You yet. I hope the film-making goes well. Hopefully you will keep us posted.

    1. They sure have big plans. It’ll be fun to see how it comes together. My dog tends to look at me funny when I sneeze. I just assume that’s dog for “bless you.” It probably is. My dog is pretty smart.

  2. This post comes right in time for – I’m having a sinusitis at the moment! 😉 Starting with antibiotics today and hope they’ll do their magic. I always wondered where these phrases originated but somehow never got around to research it – thank you for enlighten me! 😄
    Wish your son and his friends lots of fun making their movie!

  3. Now I feel better about the gesundheit thing. I’d heard that it was said because there was a belief that when one sneezed they evicted, by sheer force, a demon spirit living in their body, and so required a quick blessing to stop another demon spirit from rushing in to occupy the empty space. So I avoided saying the word/phrase because I did not quite believe that to be the case. But to offer a blessing in the hope of conferring good health, that program I can get with. God bless you all!

  4. I love that your son is making a film. That’s SO cool!!! When we went to Germany when I was a kid, “Gazundheit” was one of the few words I knew! We were there a month and I didn’t learn all that many new words, honestly.

  5. I work in a school and it has been spreading like wildfire. Going through antibacterial bottles like crazy – and we should announce “g-d bless you” on the loudspeaker every morning. It may not help but makes you feel better….Feel better!

    1. Thanks! We are well in our house now. I don’t know how long it will last, though. My oldest started middle school this year and I’m pretty sure he has managed to bring home every bug. Stay healthy! Keep using that hand sanitizer!

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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