Festive traditions vary greatly around the world.
In San Fernando, a lantern festival is held on Christmas Eve, with elaborate candle-lit creations released into the Philippine sky. In Sweden, a 43-foot-tall goat is constructed and then burned to the ground. In England, they play soccer.
While the rest of the Europe takes Christmas off, with winter breaks observed in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, the Premier League ramps up its schedule. Between Christmas Day and the end of the first week in January, English clubs will play no fewer than three rounds of fixtures. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s also the busiest time of the year for the Premier League.
English soccer wouldn’t want it any other way, though. Sure, the packed schedule might cripple national teams by the time they get to major tournaments in the summer, but there’s something to be cherished, something sacred, about playing soccer around Christmas time. It must be protected.
Boxing Day is when festive soccer is at its most quintessential. After the confinement and etiquette of Christmas Day the prospect of some sporting action offers something of a welcome refuge to Britons who simply can’t face another mince pie or another rerun of a Tim Allen movie.
This year there will be close to a full card played on Boxing Day, with eight fixtures taking place in the Premier League. Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United are all in action the day after Christmas, with soccer on the television from noon till night. It’s the greatest day to be an armchair fan.
It’s the British equivalent of NFL games played on Thanksgiving. It’s an opportunity for families and friends to either attend the match in person or gather round the television, usually with piles of turkey sandwiches strategically dotted around the room. And unlike in North America, there’s no parade to switch the channel over to—soccer only has to compete with whether you can fend off the lingering effects of a Christmas Day hangover.
Boxing Day soccer is an English tradition that dates all the way back to 1860, when the world’s oldest and second oldest clubs faced each other. Hallam FC and Sheffield FC met to play a match under a 19th century interpretation of the rules which allowed players to catch the ball with their hands. The game has changed a bit since then.
Derby matches and local clashes were deliberately scheduled the day after Christmas. The sense of community that comes with such fixtures seemed to fit in with the mood around the festive period. Apart from anything else, derbies were designed to fall on Boxing Day to ensure supporters weren’t forced to travel long distances at a time of the year that largely revolves around being at home.
It’s something of a shame that this consideration has now been ditched, with West Bromwich Albion travelling to North London this year, and Sunderland’s supporters traipsing across the width of the country to get to Old Trafford. On the other hand, there is the argument that alcohol-fuelled derby matches weren’t perhaps the most fitting way to mark the holidays (one Boxing Day Sheffield derby in 1979 saw 50 arrests made).
Of course, the winter weather tends to have an impact on some games. Lower league fixtures are susceptible to postponements and abandonments, with frozen fields the bane of every soccer fan in the land. Referees can’t relish having to conduct countless pitch inspections at this time of year.
But while both soccer and Christmas have changed significantly since the first festive fixture was played over 150 years ago, some traditions are worth preserving. The festive period would feel somewhat emptier without soccer. It has become an important part of the wider tradition of Christmas. Just because the rest of European soccer takes this time off doesn’t mean the English game should.
A continental-style winter break is something that will be widely discussed by English soccer figures until it one day happens, but if indeed a break is implemented it mustn’t interfere with the festive schedule and all the tradition that involves. The very identity and character of the English game is intertwined in the matches that are played against a backdrop of fairy lights and the occasional flutter of snowfall.
Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast (featuring James Sharman, Thomas Dobby, Brendan Dunlop and John Molinaro) takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues.