Christmas tradition extends to sporting events across the globe – some more familiar than others. It also holds a very special place in Christmas history thanks to a moving sporting gesture more than a hundred years ago.
On December 26 in Australia they go cricket crazy. The Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground is a long-established tradition, with upwards of 90,000 people now attending the first day of an international five-day Test match between Australia and the touring nation. This has even more significance during the Ashes series when old enemies England are the visitors. As there were six Test matches in the 1974-75 Ashes series, the third test was started on Boxing Day in order to fit them all in – and the international tradition had started. Before that, the Victoria-New South Wales Sheffield Shield match had traditionally included Boxing Day play.
Rugby Union club matches take place throughout the UK across the festive period, but Rugby League lost its great tradition of staging local derbies on December 26 because of the switch to summer competition in 1996. So no more official Boxing Day league battles between St. Helens and Wigan or Hull and Hull KR, but the clubs do sometimes hold ‘friendly’ Boxing Day fixtures as a nod to history.
While European football strongholds like Spain, Germany and Italy all take a winter break, in Britain they play on and on and on. In both England and Scotland, Christmas and New Year fixtures are woven into the very fabric of the festive period.
The Boxing Day association with football can be traced back to an 1860 match at Sandygate Road in Yorkshire between Sheffield FC and Hallam FC, the world’s first inter-club game. In the Football League’s inaugural season of 1888-1889, Preston North End’s “Invincibles” beat Derby County 5-0 on Boxing Day and the tradition followed. Until 1957, Christmas Day-Boxing Day double-headers were commonplace. But December 25 fixtures had largely fizzled out by 1963, although Blackpool continued to play Christmas Day matches until 1965. There was a strong suggestion Premier League fixtures could take place on Christmas Eve in 2017 to suit the live broadcasts of television channels. But it proved controversial and did not materialise, leaving Leeds United against Manchester United in 1995 as the last Premier League game played on December 24. We, at How to Christmas, were among those to think the idea of Christmas Eve matches – making travel difficult for fans and making ground staff, extra police and media work on this day of all days – was poor in the extreme. It’s good to see sense prevailed.
Football has a very special place in Christmas history thanks to the kick-a-bouts between enemy troops near the trenches of World War I across parts of the Western Front. The initial force behind the famous 1914 Christmas Truce came from the Germans, who sang carols and placed Christmas trees along the tops of the trenches on Christmas Eve. Rival troops came together in peace and celebration on Christmas morning and, in several places, it is recorded that football was played. As Stanley Weintraub reports in his excellent book “Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914”, British soldier Private Ernie Williams of the 6th Cheshires wrote: “There were about a couple of hundred taking part….there was no ill-will between us.”
National hunt racing’s King George VI Chase has been held at Kempton Park, England on Boxing Day since 1947 and has been won by such legendary horses as Arkle, Desert Orchid and Kauto Star. It is the second-most prestigious chase in England behind the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
North American Sport
American football takes its place at the heart of the holidays in the United States, in particular Thanksgiving. Three games are played on Thanksgiving Day towards the end of November – a time when Santa Claus arrives in New York at the Macy’s Day Parade and the holiday season there truly begins. The Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys host the first two games. A third game, with no fixed host team, was added to the mix in 2006. The notion of American football games on Thanksgiving Day dates back to 1876. College sides like Yale and Princeton were among the earliest holiday rivals. The professional league began the tradition as early as 1920.
On Christmas Day in the USA, basketball takes centre stage with up to five games from the NBA shown throughout the day. This has been an almost annual occurrence since the league began in 1946. Unlike the NFL, there are no fixed host venues but rather the marquee teams headline the festive action. The first Christmas Day NBA game was in 1947 when the New York Knicks beat the Providence Steamrollers at Madison Square Garden by 89 points to 75. Christmas Day games have been played every year since – except for 1998 when there was a financial dispute and half the NBA season was cancelled.
The sport of boxing crowned its first African American World Heavyweight Champion on Boxing Day 1908 in Sydney, Australia when American Jack Johnson (1878-1946) defeated Canadian Tommy Burns. For a little more than a decade around that time, Burns was the most famous African American in the world.
And then there’s…
The Christmas Day swim in the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park has been taking place since 1864. It is only open to members of the Serpentine Swimming Club, who train to cope with the chilly waters. The winner of a 100-yard swim is presented with the Peter Pan Cup, which was first presented by “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie in 1904. Wetsuits are banned.
In the early mornings of December 16-24 in Caracas, Venezuela some streets are closed to cars and buses to allow roller-skaters to wheel their way to church.