English football's quirks are myriad, and not all are universally popular. But when it comes to festive football, there's near-unanimous agreement that it should be protected at all costs. Many match-going supporters would make the case that it's only in the depths of December that we see the game being played in "proper" football weather.
Indeed, just about the only people who seem to disagree are the managers, and even they're indecisive. Last year Louis van Gaal waded into the debate with an impressive lack of cultural sensitivity, declaring the absence of a winter break the "most evil thing" about the English game; noted Anglophile Arsène Wenger, on the other hand, said he would "cry" if Boxing Day was stripped of its full fixture list (though given Arsenal's injury record, maybe he's not the best representative of professional opinion).
There's quite possibly something parochial about the English obsession with the winter fixtures; it is, after all, something that separates them from the continental lightweights. In Spain and Italy, they give themselves a couple of weeks off; in Germany and France, even longer. But the Boxing Day fixture, perhaps the most iconic in the English footballing calendar, is a tradition that stretches back an awful long way. According to the Guardian's Rob Bagchi, the world's two oldest domestic clubs, Sheffield FC and Hallam FC, played the inaugural inter-club fixture on Boxing Day back in 1860.
It wasn't until two years after that first meeting of Sheffield rivals that a game received its first mention in a newspaper; football reporting was born when the two teams met again in December 1862. Things got a little heated in the wintry cold, according to the report in the Sheffield Independent; particularly when Sheffield's Major Creswick accidentally struck Hallam's Mr. Waterfall, prompting the latter to run "at the Major in the most irritable manner," and "[throw] off his waistcoat, '[showing] fight' in earnest." (Could Mr. Waterfall be a long lost relative of Tim Sherwood?) The fracas seemed to be the most exciting action of a rather disappointing match, as "cooler heads at length prevailed," and at "three o'clock the play terminated in a 'draw'" without a goal having been scored. The first Football League season was held two decades later, Boxing Day games were included, and have been played ever since. Until 1957, there were even matches usually played on Christmas Day.
The festive fixtures have produced some of football's best stories, from games being lost in a blizzard to players having rocked up having enjoyed their Christmas celebrations a little too much. Esteemed football writer Brian Glanville recounts a tale from when Clapton Orient turned up drunk at London's Waterloo Station on Christmas morning ahead of an away match against Bournemouth. Their manager apparently greeted them with a barrel of beer, and each time forward Ted Crawford went up for a header, "he saw two footballs." Somehow they salvaged a draw. Similar events may well have conditioned the remarkable Boxing Day results of 1963, with 66 goals scored in the English First Division and 160 netted across all four leagues. Seven players scored hat tricks, with Graham Leggat netting one inside three minutes as Fulham crushed Ipswich 10-1.
For supporters, football over the festive period has taken on a life of its own. It's rather telling that when their fixtures are announced before the start of each domestic season, clubs note their first, their last and their Boxing Day games. But it begs the question: What is it about the festive fixtures that seems so special? The answer may well go beyond merely offering an excuse to escape the pain of making small talk with relatives, otherwise only blissfully broken by the snap of a Christmas cracker, and instead lie deeper within the football supporter's psyche. From afar, the obsession with the festive fixtures must seem bizarre, but it's not inexplicable. It's the inevitable collision of tradition and passion, two of the great motives of human action. It's scarcely any wonder that we're so desperate for its preservation.
First, a diversion. It's often suggested that supporting a ‘big' club is easy. In truth it's nonsense: Footballing emotions are tailored to expectations, themselves varying from club to club. A tense title race is scarcely any less stressful than an agonising relegation battle; and the delight an FC United fan may have enjoyed when watching their side promoted to the Conference North last season was indistinguishable from the joy of the Chelsea supporter watching John Terry lifting the Premier League at Stamford Bridge. But stripping the original statement of its silliness, there's an underlying conviction that unless you're suffering, you're not really a football fan. And there's perhaps a little more truth there.
Sport is ultimately all about struggle: The triumph over adversity, the heroic failure. As clichéd as it may be, it's the deepest and darkest lows that make the highs all the sweeter. But more than simple struggle, the sense of shared struggle is perhaps the strongest force binding supporters to the players donning their colours, a group of cosseted footballing cyborgs, increasingly separate from the community to which the club itself owes its entire existence. That in itself needn't be a bad thing: After all, the power of regional tribalism through which fandom once manifested itself often had extremely ugly outcomes. And it's surely as a result of football's globalisation that players that would've once been greeted with a barrage of racial abuse are now offered a warmer welcome from most in the stands.
But this helps to explain why supporters may subconsciously cling ever tighter to the precious Boxing Day fixture. It's why football fan forums the length of the country are filled with supporters trading stories of their intrepid experiences; perhaps the time they made the trek to Scunthorpe to be treated to a seasonal 0-0 and hypothermia, or made an epic journey to Plymouth, only for the match to be abandoned with the turf tough as concrete. In an increasingly sterile footballing environment, the unpredictable ways of winter add a frisson of unpredictability, and the discomfort of freezing stands reminiscent of a bygone era. Add to that the fact that it's not uncommon for reunited families to attend Boxing Day matches together, from grandparents to children, and the link with the past in the present is even more evident. It's that, ultimately, which makes these nebulous institutions football clubs rather than mere teams. Long may the festive fixtures continue.