All football fans know that the Christmas period is a wonderful time for watching football. Christmas Day, however, is a football free zone, with supporters having to find entertainment in cracker jokes and the Queens speech instead. However, back in the Victorian times and up until the 1950s, football on Christmas Day went hand in hand, like pigs in blankets and turkey with cranberry sauce.
Back then, Christmas Day was a rare public holiday and the beautiful game was one of the only sources of entertainment available. There wasn’t a TV to gather around, and so families ventured out into the cold to catch the big game. Every Christmas Day there would be a full programme of football, and usually another full schedule on Boxing Day. Football was very much a staple of the Christmas Day tradition and we think that is fascinating! Take a look at some of the amazing history that surrounds the beautiful game and the most wonderful time of the year.
The best-known Christmas Day football match took place in 1914, when one of the deadliest conflicts in human history was put on pause for a morning kick about. The First World War ‘Christmas Truce’ saw around 100,000 troops along the Western Front exchange gifts, sing carols and, of course, play football.
This fascinating slice of history wowed the world through personal letters written by soldiers at the time. A recently uncovered letter written by Staff Sergeant Clement Barker of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards explains how the match started.
“A German looked over the trench – no shots,” he wrote. “Our men did the same, and then a few of our men went out and brought the dead in and buried them. The next thing, a football was kicked out of our trenches and Germans and English played football.”
During the war, league football was suspended, which lead to the emergence of several women’s teams. The most popular of which was Dick Kerr’s Ladies, who played their first match on Christmas Day 1917.
The first ever Football League match to be played on Christmas Day was a clash between Preston North End and Aston Villa in 1889. Known as the ‘Invincibles’, Preston were the reigning league champions, however Villa had won the previous meeting between the top two sides. The hard-fought game ended 3-2 to Preston, who actually went on to win the league title for the second year running. Over 9,000 spectators turned up to watch this battle, making it one of the highest attended games that the football league had seen.
As the Football League expanded, many clubs were forced to travel longer distances for Christmas Day matches. Back then there were no public transport shutdowns, so fans and players could easily catch trains and buses for their festive fixtures. Usually, teams would play against the same opponent over the Christmas Day and Boxing Day period, to ensure that paired-up teams had equal distances to travel!
Of course, we couldn’t talk about football on Christmas Day without mentioning our very own Everton FC. In 1888, Everton played two matches on Christmas Day and then another one on Boxing Day. All three of these matches took place at the Blue’s pre-Goodison home, Anfield. On the morning of Christmas Day, Everton played a Lancashire Cup tie against Blackburn Park Road, coming from behind to win 3-2. Their next game was played in the afternoon in an annual exhibition match against Ulster FC, winning 3-0, with goalkeeper Charles Jolliffe scoring the third goal. Their final match, on Boxing Day, took place against Bootle during an unpleasant hailstone storm and ended in a goalless draw. Could you imagine the Everton of today playing three matches in two days?
Playing football on a religious holiday used to be a very contentious issue, playing football on Sunday was banned for a long time and therefore some footballers abstained from playing in Christmas Day matches. The FA made sure that playing on this holy day was actually voluntary and star players like England internationals Arthur Bridgett of Sunderland and Harold Fleming of Swindon refused to play on religious grounds.
Up until 1925, the entire Arsenal football team were actually prevented from playing Christmas Day matches because of a term in their lease. The land Highbury was built upon was owned by St John’s College of Divinity and they prohibited the play of football on any religious holiday. However, in 1925 Arsenal bought the land and played their first ever Christmas Day match against Notts County in front of 22,500 fans, winning 3-0.
The tradition of playing football on Christmas Day continued during the Second World War, even though the teams were depleted. On 25th December 1940, Norwich faced a Brighton and Hove Albion team that arrived with only five players. They managed to cobble together a full eleven from the crowd, however they lost by a staggering 18-0.
On Christmas Day in 1940, 40 wartime league matches were played, producing a total of 210 goals. Several teams played two games that day, such as Leicester who lost 5-2 at Northampton in the morning, then Northampton lost 7-2 at Leicester in the afternoon.
After the end of the war, football on Christmas Day reached a peak in popularity, with almost 3.5 million fans attending the Football League’s Christmas programme in 1949. Fans were jovial and would frequently sing carols together before kick-off, passing around cigars and hip flasks in a happy Christmas spirit.
One of the strangest post-war Christmas football traditions involved fans throwing orange peel at players. Oranges were a heavily-rationed luxury in the war years, and a popular Christmas gift. “People saved it up in their stockings and brought it to the ground just to chuck it at opposition players,” recalled Manchester United’s Charlie Mitten.
Funnily enough, football and snow don’t go hand in hand. The Christmas of 1956 was one of the whitest days on record and although the bad weather kept many spectators at home, all of the fixtures went ahead. Back then, games were frequently played in three inches of snow and driving winds. There was only one submission to the elements – Coventry’s match at Newport was abandoned due to a snowstorm, and the return match on Boxing Day was postponed.
Christmas Day of 1957 was one of the final years that there was a full league programme. The following year there were only three First Division matches played on the 25th December and just one in 1959. The arrival of floodlights and evening games had removed the need for fixtures to be squeezed into public holidays, and many fans were preferring to stay at home with their families on Christmas Day.
After that it become a thing of the past, with Christmas Day becoming a day completely devoted to family and religion for some. Today, we enjoy football around the Christmas period, on Boxing Day and before New Year but nothing on the main day. Many footy fans enjoy visiting the best pubs and bars during the festive period to catch their teams in action. This year, why not visit one of Liverpool’s most famous football themed bars, The Bastion, set in The Shankly Hotel in the heart of the city.
We would love to know your views on football on Christmas Day, would you like to see it return? Or are you happy with the current football timetable? This type of fascinating history will be present all around the soon to be open Dixie Dean Hotel in the heart of Liverpool city centre. We can’t wait to open and showcase the very best of footballing history. For updates on progress, make sure you follow us on Facebook.
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