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A History of Boxing Day sport

For many sportsmen and women around the world, we are entering the time of year when things have wound down.

Golf tournaments have a novelty edge, tennis has wound down before next month’s Australian Open comes into focus and footballers across Europe are putting their feet up as the winter breaks kick in.

But in Britain, for some there is no such luxury and Boxing Day particularly is highlighted on the calendar as one of the most eagerly anticipated days of sport of the year.

So how did we get here? Here are details of the historical significance of playing the day after Christmas in three of the UK's most popular sports.

Football

Top football managers such as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have previously complained about the festive schedule of games over Christmas, but you won’t find many fans joining them in their hostility to games played on 26th December. 

Indeed, it could have been worse from the gaffers’ perspective because up until the mid-1950s teams were required to play on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

Just imagine the bleating if they had to play two games in 24 hours.

However, that started to die out in the late 1950s when attendances on 25th December did not match those of the next day as people elected to spend time with their families instead.

But Boxing Day football had originated in 1860 with a match between Sheffield and Hallam, and while there were some in the early years of the Football League, it became much more of a regular occurrence after the First World War.

The nature of the matches has also changed with improved technology and transport as they were traditionally games where teams pitched themselves against their nearest rivals.

There will be five Premier League matches on Boxing Day this year, including Nottingham Forest’s lunchtime kick-off against Newcastle, but it is not just the top level where matches will be played.

It is unlikely to be as goal-filled as the ten First Division matches played in 1963, which generated a total of 66 goals, including Fulham’s 10-1 win over Ipswich.

There is a full programme in the Football League and throughout the non-league pyramid and to many the idea of not playing on 26th December, a traditional working-class day off that goes back to the Victorian era, is unthinkable.

The bad news for Guardiola, Klopp and other dissenters is that they are unlikely to get a Christmas break any time soon.

Racing

The other main sport that embraces competition on Boxing Day is racing and it has done for the best part of 200 years.

The date 26th December is also known as St Stephen’s Day, named after the patron saint of horses.

In 2023, there are UK meetings planned as Sedgefield, Wetherby, Aintree, Fontwell, Market Rasen, Wincanton, Kempton and Wolverhampton, while in Ireland they race Leopardstown, Limerick and Down Royal. 

By far the most prestigious of these takes place at Kempton Park with the King George VI Chase the big race of the day.

The three-mile test is seen by many as a vital preparation race for the Cheltenham Gold Cup and it was first run at the venue in 1937, the year after the current king’s grandfather ascended to the throne.

It took until ten years later, following the Second World War, for it to be switched to Boxing Day, and it has been won by some great horses since with Kauto Star triumphing five times and Desert Orchid tasting victory on four occasions.

Cricket

It is highly unlikely that the weather in Britain will be conducive to playing cricket on 26th December, but that will not be the case in Australia, where the Boxing Day Test has been an institution for nearly 50 years.

Matches are always played in Melbourne and the origins started in 1865 where the home state Victoria would take on New South Wales in the Sheffield Shield.

There were a few times in the 1950s and 1960s when Test matches spanned Boxing Day, starting with the 1950 Ashes series, but the first time a match was started the day after Christmas came in 1974 when it was the only way to squeeze in a sixth Test against England.

The tradition then took shape and proved hugely popular with hefty crowds assembling at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

The biggest to date was in 2013 when 91,112 people turned up to watch England in the Fourth Test, where the hosts would go on to win by eight wickets.

Pakistan will be the guests this year in the second match of their three-match series, with the next Ashes series due to take place in 2025.

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