Why the Brits play football on Boxing Day

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Traditionally in Great Britain, the 26th of December, is a day with a lot of football action. Our museum’s football historian Guy Oliver, British himself, explains why.

So, first things first… although Boxing Day has always been associated with sport in the United Kingdom, the name itself has nothing to do with boxing. It dates back to the days when grand houses were filled with servants, who having worked on Christmas Day were given the following day as a holiday. The tradition was to provide them with a Christmas “box” of food and presents to take back home and share with their families.

Boxing Day – or St Stephan’s Day across much of the world - is a tradition dating back many centuries, but in 19th century Britain it also came to be associated with days out. In an age of great exhibitions and new scientific discoveries there was always something new to see. The Bell’s Life newspaper of 30 December 1849 summed up the new Victorian craze:

“At the British Museum the number of visitors was 19,986, being an increase, as compared with Boxing Day last year, of 7,111. The Royal Colosseum and Cyclorama, the Panoramas of the Ohio, the Panorama of the Nile, Madame Tussauds, the National Gallery, and, in fact, every quarter in which sights were to be seen, evinced the strong disposition which existed to seek the gratification of seasonable curiosity.”

Wealthy gentlemen playing football
By the 1870s, organised sport had become part of the festive landscape as well. As far as football was concerned this initially involved wealthy gentlemen playing the game, perhaps to run off the meals their staff had cooked and served the day before. But as football’s popularity began to grow and crowds started to gather in ever greater numbers, the prospect of bumper receipts from Boxing Day crowds proved irresistible. In 1888, the newly created Football League included Boxing Day football as a part of the fixture list and it has been there ever since.

It’s seems remarkable to us now, but for many years clubs also played on Christmas Day as well as Boxing Day. In the days before families could sit down and watch a Christmas film on television, football provided a welcome diversion. An effort was made to pair local rivals together over the Christmas period in order to minimise travel but playing on both days ensured at least one home fixture. In cities where there were two clubs, it was common for fans to go and watch both teams, one on Christmas Day and there other on Boxing Day. And where there was just one team, they would play at least one of the two games at home, so no-one missed out.

First step towards more equitable treatment of players
All this was very hard on the players and the 1957-58 season saw the last of the Christmas Day matches. It was three years before the maximum wage was lifted in English football and five years before the retain and transfer policy was outlawed, and players had little power when it came to the clubs. This was perhaps the first step towards a more equitable treatment of players. The Boxing Day fixtures remained, however, in what was still a busy period of games. There were also games on New Year’s Day, as well as the all-important third round of the FA Cup when the top teams entered the competition on the opening weekend of the new year. Michel Platini had considered moving to England in 1982 but cited the difficult fixture programme at times like Christmas and Easter as on of the main reasons for choosing Juventus instead. And of course the weather!

Italian league experiments with Boxing Day
The contrast between the UK and Europe with Christmas fixtures has always been marked, with the Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga shutting down completely during the festive period. In December 2018 Italy experimented by playing a full fixture list on Boxing Day, a move which saw a rise in attendances for the games and which was very popular on television. But the experiment hasn’t been continued. The players didn’t like it. How times have changed!