The fact that Yuletide meant two days off work for England’s working multitude helped establish the habit. This was not the case in Scotland, where there was no public holiday at this time of year until 1958, and little Christmas soccer.
South of the border, from the early 1900s busy turnstiles underlined why clubs liked the arrangement. On Christmas Day 1914, during the Great War, a total of 173,000 attended the nine top-flight games played. Over the 1949 holiday period the English league attendance record was broken twice. On 26 December a new high of 1,226,098 had passed through turnstiles across the four divisions. Twenty-four hours later the bar was raised again to 1,253,572.
To the masses the relationship between Yule and soccer was about heritage, whatever the circumstance. On 1 January 1915, The Times carried a letter from an officer on the Western Front, revealing: ‘On Christmas Eve the Germans burned coloured lights and candles along the top of their trenches, and on Christmas Day a football match was played between them and us in front of the trench.’ Chelsea had raised funds and sent dozens of balls off to fans serving in the trenches, as well as match day programmes.
A year later, in one of several examples of a low-key armistice, a war correspondent at the Western Daily Press revealed that both sides took it easy over Christmas and ‘during the afternoon every available acre of meadow under any sort of cover at the rear of the lines was taken possession of for football.’
The Christmas Truce match remains one of the most evocative events of the Great War, and confirms the deep association between ‘footer’ and winter festivities.