The Gift of Giving Holiday Sports

Andrew Hale, Assistant Sports Editor

Most of us spend the holidays in the presence of family, gathering to feast on foods made for the special occasion. While many people tend to turn on movies and music fitted for the holiday mood, one holiday tradition that goes unnoticed is holiday sports. 

So why is it that both football and basketball are played on Thanksgiving and Christmas?

Not many even care to think about this very question, but these sports have just appeared on the televisions of families across the U.S. and the rest of the world for decades without hesitation.

The game of American football was created in 1869, just six years after Abraham Lincoln declared the first established national Thanksgiving holiday in 1863. At the time most people didn’t have to work on Thanksgiving and spent their off day tossing around the newly invented pigskin.  

The tradition we now know as Thanksgiving Day Football started in 1869, around the same time that the game was invented and just less than two weeks after the first collegiate game of American Football had been played between Rutgers and Princeton. 

In 1876, Yale and Princeton began an annual tradition of playing each other on Thanksgiving Day that lasted until 1881.

Before the NFL was created in 1920, professional football teams and leagues played on Thanksgiving starting in the 1890’s. Both Buffalo and Rochester, two members of the New York Pro Football League, held its championship on Thanksgiving in 1919. Marquee matchups in the Ohio League would also be played on Thanksgiving day.

After these two leagues joined in creating the NFL, it wasn’t until 1934 that the NFL, in an attempt to gain more fans, played its first Thanksgiving Day Football game, when the Detroit Lions faced the Chicago Bears.

Since 1934, the Detroit Lions have played on every Thanksgiving Day, aside from 1939-44. The Dallas Cowboys are the only other team to always play on Thanksgiving, with their tradition starting in 1966. In 2006, the NFL added a third Turkey Day matchup.

While the Lions have played the most Thanksgiving Day games, they have a record of 37-41-2. This stat, for the most part, should not come as a surprise due to the fact that the Lions are notoriously known as one of the worst franchises in NFL history.

One of the more notable NFL Thanksgiving Day Traditions is the post-game CBS Turkey Leg MVP award first given by John Madden in 1989 to Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Reggie White. When John Madden moved from CBS to Fox in 1994, he took the Turkey Leg Award with him, and gave it out through his final season with Fox in 2001.

Fox then replaced the Turkey Leg Award with the Galloping Gobbler Award in 2002. They retired the Gobbler in 2016 and replaced it with a Game Ball that is awarded to the game’s MVP on Thanksgiving. Now the NBC primetime game on Thanksgiving gives the best players of the game turkey legs in honor of Madden’s old tradition.

Now NBA basketball on Christmas Day is not as traditional as Thanksgiving football, but it is still full of history.

The NBA has played games on Christmas since its second season in 1947. Most Christmas Day games feature the two teams that appeared in the previous season’s NBA Finals, and unlike the NFL, the NBA doesn’t always feature the same teams each year. 

In 1947, the New York Knicks and the Providence Steamrollers appeared in the first NBA Christmas Day game at Madison Square Garden. The NBA has played on every Christmas since 1947 with the exception of the 1998-99 season due to the NBA lockout.

Around the time when Christmas Day games first started to be played, matchups would be based on regional proximity so teams didn’t have to travel far from their families on Christmas Day.

For the majority of games played on Christmas Day, being the home team leads to a ton of success. The home team had an all-time record of 142-75 in the Christmas games.

The Knicks have played the most Christmas Day games with a total of 53. Their last appearance came in 2018 where they lost to the Bucks and their Christmas day record dropped to 22–31. Their best moment playing on the holiday came in 1984 when Bernard King scored a Christmas Day record 60 points.

To no one’s surprise, the best record on Christmas day belongs to the Los Angeles Lakers, even though that record dropped to 23-23 after they lost to the Clippers in 2019. They too have had a few notable performances mostly by stars that have appeared in purple and gold like the late Kobe Bryant, who has the record for most Christmas Day games with 16, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James just to name a few.

James’ former teammate and three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade has the most individual Christmas Day wins with 10, just one ahead of James who has appeared in the second most games in NBA Christmas Day history.

The NBA is the only professional sports league to consistently have scheduled games on Christmas Day. The NFL only plays on Christmas if the holiday falls between their regular playing window, which is from Thursday through Monday.

If the 2020 NBA season goes according to plan, the five games featured on Christmas Day will actually be in the first week of the season. 

While there isn’t a specific answer to why these two sports decided to host games on these holidays, they have always been two of the greatest traditions for sports fans around the world. In a time where it may be hard to connect and gather with family this year, just enjoy a plate full of delicious food and multiple holiday sports games.