What happened to football on Christmas Day? The lost history of a Victorian tradition

Football was once as much of a Christmas Day staple as the Queen's Speech and pigs in blankets – but was it all festive fun or just a freezing farce? Paul Brown dons his silly hat...

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For football fans, the Christmas period serves up a real festive feast, with fixtures stuffed into the calendar like sage and onion into a turkey’s nether regions. Christmas Day, however, is a football-free zone, with supporters left to sit indoors and endure the Queen’s speech, cracker jokes and kisses from elderly relatives.

This wasn’t always the case, though – up until the 1950s, football was traditionally played on Christmas Day. 

This made a lot of sense, particularly in the early years. Christmas Day was a rare public holiday, and football was one of the few entertainments available. In the days before television, it wasn’t possible to slump on the sofa in front of the EastEnders Christmas special, so folk wrapped up in new hats and scarves from Santa Claus and went out to watch football instead. There would be a full programme of fixtures on Christmas Day and, usually, another full programme on Boxing Day. In the Victorian era, when many of the festive traditions we enjoy today were introduced, football was very much a part of Christmas. 

Two days, three games

In 1888, Everton played two matches on Christmas Day, then another on Boxing Day. All three matches took place at Everton’s pre-Goodison home – Anfield. On Christmas morning they played a Lancashire Cup tie against Blackburn Park Road, coming from behind to win 3-2. Then in the afternoon they played an annual exhibition match against Ulster FC, winning 3-0, with goalkeeper Charles Jolliffe scoring the third goal to the great amusement of the 2,000 spectators – a large crowd for the time. The Boxing Day match against Bootle was less amusing, being played in a shower of hailstones, and ending as a goalless draw.

In 1888, Everton played two matches on Christmas Day, then another on Boxing Day

The first Football League match to be played on Christmas Day was Preston North End versus Aston Villa in 1889. Preston’s 'Invincibles' were the reigning league champions, but Villa had won the previous meeting between England’s top two sides. This was a real Christmas cracker and 9,000 spectators postponed their turkey dinners to see it, making it one of the highest-attended games the fledgling league had seen.

Man of the match was Preston’s Nick Ross, the fearsome defender-turned-forward who terrified opponents by hissing at them through a crooked set of rotten teeth. Ross gave Preston an early lead, but Villa hit back with two goals before half-time. In the second half, Ross hit a long-range equaliser and then claimed his hat-trick with a “lightning shot”. A hard-fought game ended 3-2 to Preston, who went on to win the league for the second season running.

"I knew I should have asked Santa for some tights..."

Clubs often played derby matches on Christmas Day, and one of football’s biggest early derbies was Blackburn Rovers versus Darwen. In 1890, a match between the sides at Ewood Park ended in a Christmas Day riot, with very little seasonal goodwill on display.

Rovers, saving their best players for a Boxing Day match at Wolves, fielded a reserve side. An aggrieved Darwen initially refused to play, before eventually offering up their own scratch XI. At this point, several thousand short-changed supporters of both sides united to show their displeasure. “The impatient crowd burst on the field, smashed the goalposts, and damaged the stands,” reported the Birmingham Daily Post. “No game took place, therefore.” 

As the Football League expanded, clubs began to travel longer distances for Christmas Day matches. There was no public transport shutdown, so fans and players could take trains and buses for festive away trips. It was customary to play return matches on Christmas Day and Boxing Day against the same opponent, to ensure that paired-up teams had equal distances to travel.

In 1908, the return matches produced a series of mirrored results. For example, Manchester City beat Chelsea 2-1 on Christmas Day, and Chelsea beat City 2-1 on Boxing Day. And Bristol City beat Bradford City 1-0, then Bradford City beat Bristol City 1-0. “Form counts for little in these games,” said The Times ahead of one Christmas programme. “Injuries and general strain play an important part, and the happiest team is that which has the strongest reserves.”

A matter of life and death

In 1909, a Christmas Day match between Partick Thistle and Hibernian ended in tragedy when Hibs and Scotland defender James Main suffered a fatal injury. Partick’s Firhill pitch was covered in ice, and Main told colleagues they were “risking life and limb” by playing on the treacherous surface.

Just before half-time, he was involved in an accidental slippery clash with Partick’s Frank Branscombe, and was carried from the pitch with severe bruising and stud-marks on his stomach. The depleted Hibs eventually lost 3-1. Main went home, but was later rushed to hospital, where it was discovered that he had a ruptured bowel. An emergency operation couldn’t save him, and he died on the following day.

Branscombe was carried from the pitch with severe bruising and stud-marks on his stomach. An emergency operation couldn’t save him

The most famous Christmas Day football match took place in 1914, when one of the deadliest conflicts in human history was paused for a kickabout. The First World War 'Christmas Truce' saw around 100,000 troops along the Western Front exchange gifts, sing carols, and play football. The match has attained mythical status, but letters from soldiers provide evidence that it did take place. 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 (69) and buried them. The next thing, a football [was] kicked out of our trenches and Germans and English played football.” Sergeant Barker survived the war, but more than 16 million soldiers and civilians were killed.

"The keeper's got caught in No Man's Land there, Martin"

The suspension of league football and the absence of players during the First World War led 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. Festive celebrations were understandably muted, with friends and loved ones fighting abroad, but it was felt that a Yuletide football match could provide spectators with a much-needed boost, and raise money for charity.

The players, led by captain Alice Kell, were wartime munitions girls who worked at a Preston factory owned by Messrs Dick and Kerr. The match was played at Deepdale against Coulthard’s factory, and Dick, Kerr’s won 4-0. “Their forward work was often surprisingly good,” reported the Daily Post. “One or two of the ladies showing quite admirable ball control.” Ten thousand fans watched the Christmas spectacle, raising £488 for a local hospital.

Playing football on a religious holiday was a contentious issue at a time when Sunday football was still banned, and some footballers abstained from playing in Christmas Day matches. Participation was actually voluntary, with FA rules at the time stating that “no club shall be compelled to play any match on Good Friday or Christmas Day”. Star players, like England internationals Arthur Bridgett of Sunderland and Harold Fleming of Swindon, refused to play on religious grounds.

And, up until 1925, the entire Arsenal team were prevented from playing Christmas Day matches on their own religious ground. The land Highbury was built on was owned by St John's College of Divinity, and the terms of Arsenal’s lease prohibited them from playing matches on religious holidays. But Arsenal bought the land in 1925, and at 11.15am that Christmas morning they played their first Christmas Day match, against Notts County, in front of 33,500 fans. Arsenal won 3-0, with Charlie Buchan among the scorers.