Christmas Day and Christmas Eve games in the National Football League (NFL) are an occasional part of the league's schedule. In contrast to Thanksgiving Day games, however, they are not an annual occurrence; as of 2020, there have been just 22 Christmas Day games in the NFL's history.
After the NFL held two Divisional Playoff games on Christmas Day in 1971, the league avoided any more games on Christmas Day until 1989. Since then, the NFL has held occasional games on Christmas Day in some years, as part of week 16 or 17 of the regular season. Two games were played each Christmas Day from 2004 to 2006 and then from 2016 to 2017.
The NFL has generally scheduled games on Christmas Day only if it falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or Monday (though Friday Christmas games were played in 2009 and 2020). If Christmas falls on a Sunday, the normal Sunday afternoon games are moved to Saturday, Christmas Eve, and one or two games are scheduled for Christmas night to be broadcast nationally. This situation most recently occurred in 2016 and will occur again in 2022. In rare cases when a game must be played on the evening of Christmas Eve, the game is typically hosted on the West Coast of the United States so that the game takes place in the late afternoon there, and likewise, games played in the late afternoon on Christmas Day are hosted in either the Eastern or Central time zones so that they do not start before 3:30 p.m. local time. This provides a window of roughly 20 hours of local time, spanning late Christmas Eve into Christmas Day, in which the league will not play.
In the earliest days of professional football, the season typically ended near the end of November (marquee games were often played on Thanksgiving) or in the first week of December, depending on the team; exhibition games would then be held in the winter. Once league schedules were standardized in the 1930s, the NFL Championship Game was typically held in mid-December. The 1943 NFL Championship Game, played on December 26 of that year because of scheduling complications brought on by World War II, was the first regulation NFL game to be played on or after Christmas.
From 1943 until the 1970 AFL-NFL Merger, the NFL regular season usually ended in mid-December, with the NFL Championship Game being held on the Sunday two weeks later. If that Sunday fell on Christmas Day December 25, the league preferred to move it to the following day, Monday, December 26; this rescheduling occurred for both the 1955 and the 1960 championship games.
The American Football League compensated differently: the 1960 championship game was moved back by a full week, being played on New Year's Day 1961, with Christmas Sunday being an off-week. (The NFL's 1966 championship game was also held on Sunday, January 1, 1967, two weeks after the end of the regular season.) New Year's Day was an available day since the college bowl games are moved back to Monday, January 2 in years in which January 1 falls on a Sunday. The AFL had scheduled the 1966 championship game for Monday afternoon December 26, but when the two leagues agreed to merge in 1970 and play a "World Championship game" starting with the 1966 season, the AFL game was moved back to Sunday, January 1.
1971 Divisional Playoffs
The first NFL games actually played on December 25 came after the merger, during the 1971–72 NFL playoffs. The first two games of the Divisional Playoff Round were held on Christmas Day; the first of these was between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings, while the second of the two contests played that afternoon, the Miami Dolphins versus the Kansas City Chiefs, wound up being the longest game in NFL history. Because of the length of the latter game, the NFL received numerous complaints, reportedly due to the fact that it caused havoc with Christmas dinners around the nation. The league also came under fire from some quarters for intruding on a traditional religious and family holiday, and a Kansas state legislator proposed a bill to ban the scheduling of future games on December 25. As a result, the NFL decided to not schedule any Christmas Day games for the next 17 seasons.
This required considerable effort during those years in which Christmas fell on a Saturday or a Sunday, given that ordinarily those days would be days in which NFL playoff games were to be held.
In 1976, the NFL opened its regular season a week earlier than would have ordinarily been the case (September 12, the second Sunday of the month, rather than the customary third Sunday) so that the Divisional Playoffs could be held on December 18 and 19 instead of December 25 and 26, and thus no games would be needed on Saturday, December 25 (Super Bowl XI was subsequently played on January 9, the earliest date in Super Bowl history).
In 1977, with Christmas falling on a Sunday, the Divisional Playoff Games were held around the holiday, with an AFC doubleheader on Saturday, December 24, and an NFC doubleheader on Monday, December 26. This was done so that one team did not have a two-day rest advantage over the other for the Conference Championship games (the NFL only allowed one-day rest advantages). This scheduling resulted in most of the country missing the majority of the 1st quarter of the Pittsburgh Steelers-Denver Broncos game telecast (beginning at 4:00 PM EST), since the early AFC game that Saturday (Oakland Raiders-Baltimore Colts, beginning at 12:30 PM EST) went into double overtime; with an ordinary schedule of one game from each conference, viewers would have had the option of switching channels (or using a VCR) but in this case NBC simply stayed with the Raiders-Colts game (except in the Pittsburgh and Denver markets) and had to overlap its telecasts.
The NFL continued to avoid Christmas even after it started to extend the length of the regular season and the playoffs. The league expanded to a 16-game regular season and a 10-team playoff tournament in 1978, but it was not until 1982 that the regular season ended after Christmas. It was originally scheduled to end on Sunday, December 26 of that year, but the regular season was extended to Sunday, January 2, 1983 after the 57-day NFL players' strike reduced the season from 16 games to 9; the NFL compensated by extending the regular season one week and eliminating the off week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl.
Had the United States Football League survived to play its autumn 1986 season, it would have featured the first major professional football games to be played in the regular season on Christmas; the USFL planned a complete set of four games for Christmas Day. The USFL suspended operations prior to the 1986 season and the games were never played.
Regular season contests arrive on Christmas
Finally, in 1989, the NFL tried another Christmas Day game, Cincinnati at Minnesota, but it was a 9:00 p.m. ET Monday Night Football contest on ABC, thereby avoiding interfering with family dinners. The NFL pushed the regular season back one week in 1989 as a one-off experiment, meaning Christmas would fall during the last week of the regular season instead of the first round of the playoffs. The league added a bye week to its schedule in 1990, making Christmas permanently fall during the regular season. In the years since, the NFL has played an occasional late-afternoon or night game on the holiday, but there has not been a Christmas Day game starting earlier than 4:30 p.m. ET since 1971.
In the years since, the league has generally played one or two games on Christmas Day when the holiday fell on a Saturday, Sunday, or Monday. Friday Christmas games were also played in 2009 and 2020 (but not 1992, 1998, or 2015). Despite Thursday night games being a regular part of the NFL schedule, the league has never staged a Thursday Christmas game. This was done avoid giving a team a potential three-day rest advantage going into the first round of the playoffs. If Christmas landed on a Thursday, it ends up in Week 17, the last week of the regular season, instead of the usual Week 16. All 32 teams played their final regular season game on Sunday, December 28 in these years.
Beginning in 1994, the league established a practice for years in which Christmas falls on a Sunday: The majority of the Sunday games are instead played on Saturday afternoon, December 24. One or two games are held over for Christmas day and televised nationally.
In 1993, NBC aired a Christmas game for the first time since 1971, when Houston visited San Francisco. ESPN aired a Christmas game for the first time in 1994, when the Detroit Lions visited the Miami Dolphins. In 1999, CBS aired its first Christmas game since 1971, when Denver visited Detroit.
The 2004 season was the first to feature two Christmas Day games, when Oakland visited Kansas City, and Denver visited Tennessee. Fox aired a Christmas game for the first time in 2005, when Chicago visited Green Bay. The 2005 season also featured two Christmas Day games, as ESPN also broadcast Minnesota at Baltimore as its Sunday Night Football contest for the week. The NFL Network aired its first Christmas game in 2009: San Diego at Tennessee.
The next Christmas game was held in 2011, a Sunday: Chicago at Green Bay – the second time that these two teams played on Christmas. Christmas again fell on a Sunday in 2016. Christmas games were not played again until 2016, when Christmas again fell on a Sunday. Two games on Christmas Day: Baltimore at Pittsburgh for a special Sunday afternoon edition of Thursday Night Football exclusive to NFL Network, and Denver at Kansas City for the standard NBC Sunday Night Football game. Unlike most Sunday night games late in the season, the latter game was not subject to flex-scheduling due to the holiday and the fact that the majority of games were played on Saturday.
Two games were played on Christmas Day in 2017, which was a Monday. Pittsburgh at Houston on a special edition of Thursday Night Football, and Oakland at Philadelphia on the standard Monday Night Football game.
Future of Christmas games
On March 19, 2021, the NFL and its broadcast partners agreed to an 11-year contract which will run from 2023 through 2033. As part of the deal, Fox acquired the rights to air special Christmas Day games as the schedule permits. These special Christmas games are in addition to standard primetime games on Christmas (such as Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football in years in which Christmas lands on those days). In addition, with the season expanding to 18 games and ending a week later, the league has the option to schedule Christmas games on Thursdays, as this would no longer be the final week of the regular season.
1971 playoff games
|Season||Visiting Team||Score||Home Team||TV|
|1971||Dallas Cowboys||20–12||Minnesota Vikings||CBS|
|Miami Dolphins||27–24 (2OT)||Kansas City Chiefs||NBC|
Christmas Day standings
By Franchise (as of 2020 NFL season)
|Los Angeles Chargers||1||0||0||1.000||42||17|
|New Orleans Saints||1||0||0||1.000||52||33|
|New York Jets||1||0||0||1.000||13||10|
|Kansas City Chiefs||2||1||0||.667||88||67|
|Green Bay Packers||1||1||0||.500||52||45|
|San Francisco 49ers||0||1||0||.000||7||10|
|Las Vegas Raiders||0||2||0||.000||40||50|
There have also been several games played on Christmas Eve over the years, the most famous of these being an Oakland Raiders-Baltimore Colts playoff contest in 1977 which culminated in a play immortalized as "Ghost to the Post". These games have typically been played early in the afternoon out of deference to the holiday. If Christmas Day falls on a Sunday (most recently in 2016 and next in 2022), then most of the weekend's NFL games will be on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, except for a few games played on Thursday, Sunday, or Monday night in the league's regular prime-time television packages.
The 2004 season featured a Christmas Eve matchup on Friday afternoon, one of the rare instances when the league has played on Friday. The game (Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings for the NFC North title) aired on Fox; the Packers defeated the Vikings 34–31. Prior to that, the last Christmas Eve Friday game was played in 1999 when the New Orleans Saints defeated the Dallas Cowboys.
Since the Sunday Night Football package moved to NBC in 2006, there were two instances in which Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday. In 2006, while the regular slate of afternoon games was played, no Sunday night game was scheduled. Instead, two games were played on Monday, Christmas Day. NBC, which was under contract to air the Sunday night game, aired the first Christmas Day game pitting the Philadelphia Eagles against the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium, with a 5:00 pm ET kickoff (it is the only Monday game called by longtime Monday Night Football announcer Al Michaels since the move of MNF to ESPN and his move to NBC). ESPN followed at 8:30 pm with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football. In 2017, the normal SNF game was moved to Saturday, December 23 and no Christmas Eve game was played (on Christmas Day, Monday, there was an NFL Network special and the standard Monday Night Football game).
In 2007, Christmas Eve landed on a Monday. This proved especially problematic; the league's television contract with ESPN requires the league to provide 17 Monday Night Football games over the course of the first 16 weeks of the season (the league no longer schedules a Monday night game for the final weekend of the season). In seasons past, the league compensated for an instance like this by giving ESPN or ABC an extra Saturday or Thursday night game later in the season, but this was no longer possible because the new television contract gave the rights to those games to NFL Network. Thus, with the league already stretching its limits by placing a Monday night doubleheader on opening weekend, this meant that every available Monday night would have to air at least one game, even if it were Christmas Eve. To ease the issue, the game was scheduled between two Western teams, the Denver Broncos at the San Diego Chargers, so that the game could start at 5:00 PM local time. The same scenario was set to occur in 2012, but the NFL's newly renegotiated television allowed ESPN to move the scheduled "Monday night" game for that week to the Saturday before (the Saturday night game in 2012 would feature the Atlanta Falcons and the Detroit Lions). This happened again in 2018, but the NFL reverted to the 2007 situation, with the Denver Broncos visiting the Oakland Raiders. Such a situation will not occur again until 2029, which is beyond the current television contracts.
Since the Thursday Night Football package began in 2006, there have been three instances when Christmas Eve was on a Thursday. In 2009, no game was scheduled on December 24, opting instead to hold a special edition of TNF on Christmas Day (see above). In 2015, the NFL scheduled a Thursday Night Football game between the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders, again two west coast teams, with the game starting at 5:00 PM local time, and no games scheduled on Christmas Day. When Christmas Eve fell again on a Thursday in 2020, the league once again did the opposite and only held a game on Christmas Day.
For 2016, Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday. A reduced slate of 11 afternoon games were scheduled on Christmas Eve, as well as a primetime game (being broadcast as a special edition of Thursday Night Football) between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Houston Texans. The game started at 7:25 PM local time in Houston, marking the latest NFL game ever played on Christmas Eve. 
- Ho Ho Ho! The NFL on Christmas History
- "NFL Playoffs on Christmas Draw Protests Across Land". The Los Angeles Times. 1971-12-17.
- Eldridge, Larry (1971-12-22). "The football grinch who stole Christmas". The Christian Science Monitor.
- Middlehurst-Schwartz, Michael (May 7, 2020). "NFL to hold Christmas game in rare Friday matchup between Vikings, Saints". USA Today. Retrieved May 8, 2020.
- "Fox Corporation Announces New Eleven-Year Media Rights Agreement with the National Football League". PR News Wire. Retrieved March 31, 2021.
- "NFL Week 16 schedule: Christmas comes early for pro football fans". AL.com. Retrieved 23 December 2016.
- "NFL throws huge Christmas curveball on 2016 regular-season schedule". CBSSports.com. Retrieved 23 December 2016.