It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Christmas Day Rugby League was as much a feature of the festive period as a good old sing-song around the tree.
It was go go go as well as ho ho ho, as after unwrapping the presents, fans flocked to see their favourites in action, sometimes in derby duels which would be reversed on Boxing Day, before heading back home to tuck into Christmas dinner.
Neither the food nor the presents were as lavish in the times we’re talking about, and the increased commercialism of the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ – as well as the changing culture of British society – was at the heart of the gradual disappearance of December 25 from the fixture list between the late Fifties and the early Seventies.
Christmas Day matches had been played since the big split – in the very first season of the Northern Rugby Football Union, 1895-96, the results included Halifax 11 Tyldesley 3, St Helens 6 Widnes 0 and Wigan 16 Stockport 0.
And other than in those years when December 25 fell on a Sunday (Rugby League matches on the Sabbath were prohibited until 1967) the custom continued.
In the first part of the 20th Century, public holidays were fewer, and when they did come around, people wanted entertainment.
In the days before television, it wasn’t possible to slump on the sofa in front of the Top of the Pops seasonal special or EastEnders.
Both Rugby League and the country’s other professional team sport, association football, realised the potential for big crowds, and Christmas became a crucial time, with both sports stuffing fixtures into the schedule like sage and onion in a turkey.
In order to maximise attendances and therefore revenue, if a town had both a Rugby League and football club, negotiations took place where possible to avoid both being at home on the same day.
The presence of two football clubs, City and Park Avenue, meant Bradford Northern just had to accept a clash with one of the football teams when they themselves were in action at Odsal, but over on Humberside, Rugby League, which usually included a Hull FC v Hull KR festive derby, would have a morning kick-off, so when Hull City were at home, fans of both sports were able to take in another game in the afternoon if they so desired.
The players might not have enjoyed December 25 games, and after West Bromwich and Birmingham City agreed to switch their 1958 derby to a date later in the campaign, Albion’s England international midfielder Ray Barlow told the local Sports Argus: “I don’t like the idea of a Christmas Day match and I don’t know of a colleague from my club or any other who does.”
But the spectators, some fortified by a nip of whisky and puffing on a rare cigar, seemed to relish them, since matches on and around Christmas and Boxing Day were often among the best attended of the season.
Take 1958-59, for instance, when for the third time in twelve years, most Rugby League clubs played not only on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, but also December 27, which was a Saturday – imagine the reaction of a modern-day coach to that suggestion!
St Helens claimed a trio of wins, a 10-6 success in front of 13,000 at Leigh before, at Knowsley Road, 32,000 saw arch-rivals Wigan beaten 13-9 while 24 hours later, 28,000 rolled up to witness a 22-6 defeat of Oldham.
By that year, a decade after a combined one million fans watched the 43 Football League games, including an amazing 49,655 for Hull’s Third Division North clash with Rotherham United at Boothferry Park, December 25 football was dwindling, and only nine matches took place.
But it was carry on Christmas Day for Rugby League, and in 1959-60, when there were just two football matches, of the 30 Championship clubs (there was just the one division back then), all but Doncaster, Keighley, Rochdale Hornets, Salford, Wigan and Whitehaven were in action.
However attendances were disappointing, ranging from 12,000 for the Hull derby (FC crossed the city to beat Rovers 13-2 at Craven Park) to a meagre 600 for the 5-5 seaside stalemate between struggling duo Blackpool Borough and Liverpool City.
Blackpool Football Club had one last crack at a December 25 outing, and staged the last League match on that day in 1965-66, when Blackburn Rovers were beaten 4-2 in a top-flight clash in front of 20,851 at Bloomfield Road, just up the road from Borough Park, the stadium which hosted both Rugby League and greyhound racing.
By then, more and more Rugby League clubs were choosing mince pies and the Queen’s Speech instead of matches, and in 1968-69, there were only three results to record – Dewsbury 15 Huddersfield 0 (attendance 2,700), Halifax 4 Bradford 30 (8,458) and Hull KR 9 Hull FC 0 (10,000).
Recently-signed Australian star Arthur Beetson’s Rovers stay was curtailed when he suffered a broken leg in what was to be the last Christmas Day derby on Humberside.
That left West Riding rivals Bradford, Dewsbury, Halifax and Huddersfield as the only clubs keeping the December 25 tradition alive, and there were various permutations of meetings between the quartet up until 1971-72.
That season, when the festivities fell on a Saturday, future Sky pundit Mike ‘Stevo’ Stephenson scored a hat-trick of tries as Dewsbury defeated Huddersfield 18-0 in front of 3,000 at Crown Flatt while 5,539 saw Bradford claim an 18-5 win over Halifax at Thrum Hall in what was technically the final Christmas Day match because it kicked-off half an hour later at 3pm.
There seem to have been a few factors behind the demise of the December 25 matches.
While cutting the level of Christmas Day public transport was an influence, there was also a trend towards spending more time as a family as the ‘traditional’ roles of husband and wife became more blurred and women were understandably less willing to spend so much of the day alone in the kitchen.
A steady rise in disposable income meant more was spent on the celebration and the presents, and then there was the goggle box, which became a key provider of entertainment at home.
At Christmas in 1956, fewer than half the households in the United Kingdom had a television, and only one in six could view both the BBC and ITV channels.
By the start of the Sixties, when the afternoon offerings on the big day included Billy Smart’s Circus, The Sooty Show and Christmas Swingtime featuring Cliff Richard and The Shadows, around two-thirds of households owned a television and more than half had access to both channels.
As crowds were falling, the cost of staging Rugby League matches was rising, and the outcome, as far as Christmas Day matches were concerned, was inevitable.
While Brentford Football Club, once home to London Broncos, were forced to ditch plans to play their Third Division match against Wimbledon on December 25, 1983 amid supporters’ protests, both America’s National Football League and National Basketball Association still have Christmas Day matches.
First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 441, January 2018