Christmas Day football was one of the great traditions of the English game and through until the 1920s, the Christmas Day home fixture was often the occasion when clubs attracted one of their highest home gates of the season. That tradition was still popular into the 1950s but effectively disappeared altogether by the end of that decade. Its decline was sudden: Christmas Day 1957 saw a near full round of fixtures: 37 out of a maximum 46 games took place; in 1959 there were just two games.
Christmas Day was almost as popular as Boxing Day with the fans through until the mid-1950s. Not surprisingly, the highest attendances came in the late 1940s when gates were at an all-time peak. In 1948-49 over one million fans watched the Christmas Day games, more remarkably the highest gate was at Boothferry Park where a record 50,000 plus saw Hull City take on Rotherham United. Boxing Day gates were higher still. The following season Christmas Day fell on a Sunday and the clubs played three games in four days: Christmas Eve, Boxing Day and 27 December. Over 3 million attended over the three days, including an all-time record of 1,272,185 on 27 December, a total that has never been surpassed.
Christmas holiday attendances held up well until 1956 when severe weather affected gates at both Christmas Day and Boxing Day fixtures with gates down 50% compared to the previous year. Most games were played on snow covered pitches and 15 of the scheduled Boxing Day fixtures were postponed. Around 480,000 turned out to watch the 37 games played on Christmas Day and around 370,000 on Boxing Day. The heavy snow also disrupted the travel arrangements of several teams. The coach carrying Torquay players back from their game at Brentford on Christmas Day became stuck in snowdrifts and the players had to help dig a path through. They arrived back at 6am on Boxing Day and after a few hours sleep had recovered sufficiently to win the return game 2-0. Cardiff perhaps fortunately had no game on Christmas Day and set off for Old Trafford at 5pm. Their coach came off the road near Hereford and the team switched to rail travel, reaching Shrewsbury after midnight. After a hotel stay, they left at 10am the next morning and only reached the ground shortly before kick-off. The attendance at Old Trafford was just 28,607, the highest of all the Football League games that day.
The Christmas weather was much better in 1957, but although Boxing Day gates were back to their previous levels, those on Christmas Day failed to recover significantly. By now Football League clubs could play games under floodlights and so despite a full schedule of fixtures having been originally set for 1958 most were rearranged and held under lights earlier in the season. Just 13 games took place on Christmas Day and at this point the Football League clubs decided that Christmas Day football should end. No games were scheduled for Christmas Day 1959 and have not been since. A couple of rearranged fixtures took place at Blackburn and Coventry in 1959, and apart from one final match at Blackpool in 1965 that was it; Christmas Day football was no longer.
Christmas Day football was very unpopular with the players, who felt it meant they could not enjoy the festivities. Jimmy Greaves, writing in the Daily Express (15 September 1958) said, “Most of us would like to see an end to Christmas Day football too. It does not draw huge crowds, but it disrupts the home life of every player. No Christmas pudding for the footballer and if there’s an away game like we have at Blackburn this year, no Christmas either.” Ray Barlow (Sports Argus, 21 December 1958) was looking forward to enjoying his first Christmas at home for 12 years after West Bromwich Albion switched their home game with Birmingham City to a midweek floodlit game: “Personally, I don’t know any players who like the idea of a Christmas Day match.”
The fans had rather different opinions on the matter. After the Daily Express carried an article by the Wolves’ manager Stan Cullis calling for the return of Christmas Day football (23 December 1959) feedback from readers was invited and 83% of those who responded were in favour. The letters published (30 December 1959) are informative as they reveal something of the traditional characteristics of games played R Baker from Clapton, East London: “Fortified with a nip of whisky and a pocketful of cigars it has long been the Yuletide tradition in my family for the menfolk to go to the match. The Christmas morning atmosphere differs from that of any other match in the Soccer calendar.” Stephen Parrish, aged 15, from Hanwell, West London: “There is no better way of spending a Christmas morning than cheering one’s team and then coming home with a large appetite.” High scores and unpredictable results almost certainly contributed to the popularity of the games. In 1956 Tottenham beat Everton 8-0 at White Hart Lane; Bury beat Bristol Rovers 7-2 and then lost the return game on Boxing Day 6-1. The following year Chelsea beat Portsmouth 7-4 on Christmas Day and lost 3-0 at Fratton Park on Boxing Day; Bristol Rovers, almost repeated their previous year’s performances, losing 6-4 at Swansea then winning 3-0 at Eastville. The novelty of morning kick-offs, plenty of goals and ready supplies of Christmas ‘spirit’ made these games very special for the fans.
Why did Christmas Day football end so suddenly? Falling crowds were probably the main factor, particularly as clubs realised they could get better gates if the matches were held under floodlights at a time when the weather was milder. Although public transport is sometimes suggested as a reason, this does not seem to be the case. In the 1950s many public transport systems were operating a modified Sunday service and the big cuts in the railway service on Christmas Day did not come until 1961, a few years later. The second significant cause was almost certainly the growth in television ownership. At Christmas in 1956 less than half the households in the UK owned a television and only one in six could view both BBC and ITV channels. Three years later around two-thirds of households owned a television and over half had access to both channels. Television was beginning to become a dominant feature in domestic life and for many it would become an integral part of the family Christmas celebrations. However, television did not ‘kill’ Christmas Day football: it was the clubs, by switching fixtures away from the day, and then the Football League, by deciding to no longer schedule fixtures, which were ultimately responsible.