Did you know that the holidays aren’t just about going overboard with decorations, getting buzzed off rum and eggnog, and listening to “Last Christmas” until its contagious lyrics are seared into your mind like a yuletide branding iron? The merry season is also a ripe time for great games, with some of the best moments in sporting history taking place or around Christmas day. From landmark NFL matchups (Ghost to the Post!) to heart-pounding b-ball games (Shaq Vs. Kobe!) and every holly jolly moment in-between, here are some in merry matches that made even Saint Nicholas himself take a break from his magical trip ‘round the world to catch up on the action. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, indeed.
Proving that some of the greatest moments in the history of sports aren’t confined to the professional leagues, or even this generation, the Christmas truce match was a friendly game of (non-American football) between German and British troops at the height of World War I. Dramatized in the 2014 film Joyeux Noel, it was reportedly the Germans who had the idea to wish their British counterparts a Merry Christmas and have a day of peace after trucking in Christmas trees and holiday goods to the frontlines. Eventually, the two sides began mingling with each other and began kicking around a football (soccer ball) for good measure. Legend has it, the British troops defeated the Germans 3-2. Recalled Captain Clifton Inglis Stockwell of the occasion, “It was one of the most curious Christmas Days we are ever likely to see.”
It was the very first year the NFL scheduled a day of games on Christmas and they wound up hitting the jackpot with one of the most memorable matches in football history. Just as the country was getting seated for Christmas dinner, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins kicked off a marathon match that was tied 24-24 by the end of the fourth quarter. Cue the game’s first overtime, and then a second OT and you have yourself the longest game in NFL history, wrapping up after more than 5 ½ wild quarters, amounting to a total of 82 minutes and 40 seconds of yuletide gametime. In fact, fans were so frustrated by such a long game on Christmas that it’s reportedly the reason the NFL didn’t schedule another game on December 25th until 1989.
Christmas 1971 turned out to be a remarkable day in sports history. Not only did the aforementioned longest game in NFL history taking place, it was also the very last slate of Christmas Day games in NHL history. Starting in 1919, the league always had memorable Christmas matchups, because what goes better with a white Christmas than a game on ice? For whatever reason, that all came to an end in 1971 with a shining display of six memorable games, the finale of which was a face-off between the California Golden Seals and the LA Kings. (For the record, the Seals won, 3-1.)
Twas the day before Christmas and a ghost emerged. Under the tutelage of legendary head coach John Madden, the Raiders faced off against Indianapolis in not only the fifth longest game in NFL history, but a game that would be remembered for one signature play simply dubbed Ghost to the Post. (And no, we’re not talking about the ghosts from Christmas past, present or future here.) The legendary play’s name actually derives from the friendly Casper, named after Raider great Dave Casper who caught a 42 yard pass from teammate Ken Stabler. The astounding pushed the Raiders to tie the game, with Oakland eventually winning 37-31.
It was a game that captured two emerging titans early in their career: the Bulls, led by a bubbling superstar, Number 23 himself Michael Jordan, and the Knicks and its star player Patrick Ewing. Jordan’s first Christmas Day face-off was a nail biter till the end, with Ewing and his cohorts eventually coming out on top, taking home the W, 86-85. It was a sign of great moments to come, with the Bulls and Knicks routinely meeting on Christmas Day and forging an epic NBA rivalry in the process.
Smack in the middle of New York great Bernard King’s heyday with the Knicks, he dominated during this Christmas Day matchup against a pre-Brooklyn Nets. Fueled no doubt by a healthy dose of the holiday spirit, the almighty King lived up to his last name by scoring a whopping 60 points against the Nets, a Christmas Day NBA record to this day. Despite King’s powerhouse performance, New York fell to New Jersey 120-114, a sticking point for King to this day. “Whether I scored 15 points or 60 in a game, the bottom line was: Did we win?” King explained in 2014. “Scoring 60 points may take on an added flavor, especially after many years because it’s still so memorable for so many people, but in that moment I felt total dejection. There was no excitement. What bothered me most is that we didn’t get a win for the fans.”
It was a holiday matchup that entered the annals of NBA history for two stand-out reasons. For one, it was Lakers great Shaquille O’Neal’s first game back in Los Angeles after his infamous trade to the Heat. (He wound up fouling out in the fourth corner against former teammate Kobe Bryant – awkward!) Most importantly, the game served as an incredible show of talent from both teams at the height of their powers on the court. In the end, Miami squeaked out an overtime 104-102 win.
Ho, ho, oh shit. Throughout the 2008 NBA season, the Celtics were sitting pretty with an impressive 19-game winning streak. That is, until, a Christmas game they’d probably rather forget when their winning run was crushed courtesy of the likes of Paul Gasol and Kobe himself. While Boston fans wound up having a blue Christmas and a season that was anything but bright, L.A.’s season was the opposite, with the unstoppable team as resilient as Santa’s reindeer for the remainder of the season, later winning the NBA championships.
Throughout the NFL’s 100-year history, there has only been 19 total games played on Christmas Day. It was in 2016 that saw the first return of a Christmas football matchup in five years: a Ravens- Steelers and Broncos-Chiefs doubleheader, no less. While Pittsburgh and Kansas City wound up on top in the memorable matchups, the success and attention of both jolly games proves that it could be the start of a new tradition, with 2017 seeing another double-header to remember with the league’s 20th and 21st Christmas games, with Steelers facing off against the Texans and the Raiders opposing the Eagles.