While America is hungover on Christmas spirit, today the country’s football passionate still celebrate. Thanks to NBC Sports’s excellent coverage of the English Premier League, US fans are becoming acquainted with the British holiday Boxing Day and have started to adopt it into their holiday festivities. While the meaning behind Boxing Day may be lost in between the Atlantic, fans have begun to make their own traditions.
Head down to Piper’s Pub on the South Side of Pittsburgh and you can see how Boxing Day blends with American soccer culture. Many of the ex-pats overseas come home for the holidays, reconnect with old friends, and share stories of their time spent abroad, all while cheering on their Premier League club. Rivalries are put aside for a day of relaxation watching the sport that brought them together in the first place.
The origins of Boxing Day are mysteriously hard to pinpoint. The holiday can be traced back to the Middle Ages, but some believe it can be ever further linked back to the late Roman period. Essentially, it is a day where members of the lesser class receive gifts from employers or those more fortunate. Since members of the servant class would have to wait on their masters during Christmas, the following day they were allowed to visit their families. As a sign of appreciation for their hard work, their employers would give the servants a box containing gifts, money, and often times left over food. It also seems to be a reference to the Alms Box in churches that collect donations to the poor.
Football has been associated with Boxing Day almost ever since the sport’s existence. The first match on Boxing Day took place on December 26, 1860 between Sheffield FC and Hallam FC. Sheffield and Hallam are recognized as the two oldest association football clubs in the world. Sheffield prevailed 2-0 in the first ever inter-club match. This was the beginning of a proud English footballing tradition.
Boxing day matches have existed in the top flight of English league football since the inaugural 1888-89 season. Preston North End showed no mercy for Derby County on a day supposedly for benevolence. Preston won 5-0 on their way to the first league championship, going undefeated in the process. Christmas Day matches accompanied Boxing Day matches up until 1963, when it was decided to keep the two holidays separate. Christmas became a day for family, Boxing Day a day for football.
The football pitch has long unified the British people around the holiday season. Stories are passed down of the historic Christmas truce game in 1914 between British and German soldiers during the fighting of World War I. For one day, the two agreed to put down their weapons and kick the ball around on the battlefront of Northern France. It is an inspirational tale that shows how differences can be put aside thanks to a game that so many love.
Now there are massive stadiums for fans to share their love. Boxing Day sees some of the largest attendance numbers in the Premier League season. With English football clubs comes a sense of community. They sing together, they cheer together, and at times they act like drunken buffoons together. Families share experiences in those seats around the pitch. I can only assume that many fathers and sons look back fondly on the Boxing Day games they attended. Scorelines are hardly what matters on this one occasion; the day carries a much larger significance. It’s about celebrating a love for the game with the ones you love.
However, don’t tell that to the players and coaches. Boxing Day for them is hardly about feelings of good will. It is all about survival. The holiday comes right in the middle of a stretch of four games in two weeks. The players will need their jerseys cleared of the grass stains fast because they’ll be right back at it on Sunday. Hamstrings are put in danger. Conspiracies often swirl that players will dive into reckless challenges to pick up a 5th yellow card so they are suspended a game, giving their bodies a temporary respite. The whirlwind of games sees mass upheaval in the tables. If a mid-table team catches a poor run of form they could come into the new year near the relegation zone. There is simply no time for the players to think about the larger importance of football on Boxing Day.
For me, not much changes on Boxing Day. Eyes glued to the computer screen watching 7 hours of consecutive football is more of a daily tradition at this point. Yet there’s still something a little bit more special about these games. Maybe it’s the added energy from the fans, or the historical context, or hell maybe I too am still slightly tipsy from the Christmas spirit. Regardless, I love football therefore I love Boxing Day.