For most of their history, the Christmas and Easter holidays, like most other festivals, had their own distinctive sporting characters. The climate restricted most Christmas recreation to indoors, or to vigorous open-air activities. It was the season for family feasting, some brief respite from the common drabness of the daily diet, for drinking, for such games as bobbing for apples, and making music. Many towns and villages had their customary ritual processions, noisy and festive, their wassailing, the ringing of bells, and mummers' plays.4 The main competitive sport was football, in one or other of its forms. Communal contests, like that at Kirkham in Lancashire, often took place on Christmas Day itself. Christmas Day football was played over the whole of the British Isles. In Scotland, at Scone, the married men strove against the bachelors, while at Inveresk the wives tackled the spinsters. Hardy Scots fishwives took to golf on any holidayS - those at Musselburgh competed on New Year's Day for a creel presented by the local golf club.6 There was Christmas Day football in Ireland at the Restoration, and in Cardiganshire in Wales . There was an hour-long lunch interval here to one Christmas game. Players and spectators alike resorted freely to the beer barrel, and the afternoon session descended, un surprisingly, into a free-for-all - the footballers 'began to quarrel and swear and kick each other' and were soon 'fighting like bulldogs'. 7
Easter sport usually had both more variety and greater sobriety. It could embrace virtually any competitive activity popular at the time, from quoits, bowls, bell-ringing, and cock-fighting in the early eighteenth century, to steeplechasing, football, cycling tours, and rowing in the late nineteenth. s Today, though, its sporting fare is little different from that of Christmas. In North America, where Easter is of less speCial sporting significance, the harshness of winter made outdoor sports surrender the early months of the year to ice hockey and basketball, which contributes to a continuing springtime distinction. By
The building trades in Britain now regularly take a two-week break covering Christmas and the New Year, and many other businesses find it unprofitable to reopen briefly between the two Bank Holidays . Few vestiges though, sporting or otherwise, remain of the other special days which once illuminated the Christmas season. The sporting emphasis on Boxing Day itself is modern. Although prize-fights and pedestrian matches begin to appear on Boxing Day in the industrial areas from the second quarter of the nineteenth century,16 26 December had no regular sporting importance until the effects of the 1871 Bank Holiday Act began to be felt. Other Christmas church festivals , Holy Innocents' Dayan 28 December, and Epiphany on 6 January, were never occasions for competitive play. The latter, as Twelfth Day, was noted by James Boswell as a day 'on which a great deal of jollity goes on in England'17 (as distinct from the Scotland which he had just left), though it was largely secular and domestic, and residually remembered still as the time by which Christmas decorations must be taken down and the
Some traditional Good Friday play did make tenuous claims to religious meaning, but this had usually been left far behind. The whipped top was Pontius Pilate, as was the tethered bird, or one perched high in a large earthenware pot, and pelted with sticks and stones. 25 This 'amusement' tended to spread over the other spring feasts, enough to prompt a campaign against it by the London constables on Shrove Tuesday, 1768. 26 Specific to Good Friday 'in the past', according to Pierce Egan in 1832, was the annual wrestling at one of the early homes of cricket, White Conduit Fields,27 but the tendency was for Good Friday to take on a more subdued tone. There were the day's rail excursions to local beauty spots, popular with Victorian workers,2/l whose rough and ready predecessors, colliers 'in the first rank for savage ignorance and wickedness of every kind', listened to Wesley'S preaching so attentively on Good Friday, 1743.29 In the later years of the nineteenth century the middle-class sports clubs were also likely to show more deference to the singular observance of Good Friday than to the recurring demands of Sunday abstinence. 3D
Whatever doubts there might have been over the sporting suitability of Good Friday, there were few over the rest of Eastertide. As at Christmas, the holiday came to extend over several days. Government offices were closed for the first three days of the week in 1800, and 'Easter Tuesday' and 'Easter Wednesday' had their own titles. While much of the Easter play would spread over the whole holiday, some events became attached to particular days - Easter Tuesday, for instance, saw the annual football game between the fishermen and the colliers at Workington,31 and a handball competition among the girls of Keswick.:>2 Easter Tuesday prize-fights,33 though, signified nothing out of the ordinary, as Tuesday had long become the main 'fighting day' throughout the season.