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Ravens, NFL deliver the rare gift of football on Christmas

For much of its history, the National Football League avoided Christmas Day, even shifting championship games to Monday when the holiday fell on Sunday. But there will be two games this Sunday.

This year, Colleen Gizinski's Christmas will not begin with a traditional Polish breakfast of raisin bread, sausage and hard-boiled eggs at her Fallston home.

Instead, she and her husband, Bob, will board an 8 a.m. bus bound for Pittsburgh to see the Ravens play the Steelers.

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"When is this going to happen again?" Gizinski said. "Look, we'll do Christmas another day. Our kids will just have to tough it out."

The Gizinskis and thousands of other fans plan to build their schedules around the rare Christmas Day game, which shapes up as the most important of the season for the Ravens as they fight for a playoff berth.

Many fans will finish eating and exchanging gifts in time to gather in front of their televisions for the 4:30 p.m. kickoff. Others will set aside their traditions entirely to travel to Pittsburgh. Some will go to local bars and casinos that will be open and have game-day specials.

Religious leaders are grateful the football game begins after their holy day services — a Christmas Eve game, they said, would have been more problematic.

For Colleen Gizinski, deciding what to do was easy. She grew up in Pittsburgh, but she and her husband have loved the Ravens since the team arrived in 1996. Her father, her two sons and her grandchildren, who also live in the Baltimore area, are die-hard Steelers fans. The family is so divided that they do not watch games together.

She figured the Steelers contingent would abandon her house to watch the game anyway. So why not beat them to the punch and go to Pittsburgh? "I think they were a little shocked, because we normally cater to them and the grandkids," she said with a laugh.

For much of its history, the National Football League avoided scheduling games on Christmas Day, even shifting championships to Monday when the holiday fell on Sunday.

That changed in 1971, when the NFL squeezed two playoff games in the schedule on Christmas. But the NFL heard widespread backlash from fans, who said the games interfered with their holiday traditions.

So the league went back to scheduling around Christmas for the next 18 years, breaking that trend in 1989 with a Monday night game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings.

There have been just 17 games played on Christmas. The league tries to limit them by scheduling one or two games later in the day and moving the rest to Christmas Eve. After the Ravens-Steelers game Sunday, the Denver Broncos face the Kansas City Chiefs. Twelve games will be played on Christmas Eve.

"We're certainly mindful of people's schedules and traditions," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. "But we also know people like to watch our games as a family, and this a great opportunity for them to do that."

The Ravens have played once on Christmas — in 2005 — beating the Minnesota Vikings, 30-23, to create a rare bright spot in a disappointing 6-10 season.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his players seem to cherish the prospect of playing in a nationally broadcast game.

"This is what we do, and we get to do it every single day. Now you get to do it on Christmas Day — one of the two most important holidays to me, that and Easter — and you get to do it with the whole nation watching, something people care about," Harbaugh said. "To be able to be a part of this — football, Christmas Day — to be in people's homes, and do what we do and do what we love to do, it's really an awesome thing."

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For some players it will make an odd Christmas as they pound on opponents rather than tearing wrapping paper with their kids.

"I don't think I've ever played on Christmas, so this will be interesting," tight end Dennis Pitta said. "I've got three young kids at home, so it will be tough to be away from them, but they'll be able to watch me on TV. I'll just trick them and act like Christmas is Monday. My oldest is 3, so he doesn't know the difference."

Quarterback Joe Flacco plans to focus on the game as he would any other week.

"Everyone keeps telling us, 'You are going to ruin our Christmas' or 'You are going to make our Christmas.' I'm like, 'That is the last thing we are worried about,'" he said. "We can enjoy Christmas that night and on the plane ride home."

The game has enormous implications to both teams — and therefore to the fans.

Brian Snyder, whose company BMORE Around Town books fan trips for every Ravens road game, wasn't sure he would schedule any to Pittsburgh on Christmas.

"I didn't think we'd be able to pull off the trip, because everybody has family ties and rituals," the Baltimore resident said.

But interest in making the trip increased as the importance of the game grew. Shortly after the Ravens beat the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, Snyder sold the last of 100 spots on two charter buses. He probably would have booked twice as many if the game fell on a different weekend, but he was pleasantly surprised by the Christmas rush.

He'll show holiday-themed movies on the drive up and try to make the atmosphere festive, with many regular customers booked for the trip.

Debbie Kammerer of Pasadena will be one of the regulars boarding Snyder's bus at 7 a.m. She loves the Ravens enough to have a purple Christmas tree and a football-themed bar in her basement. So the idea of devoting Christmas to her favorite team didn't feel like much of a stretch.

Her son, Tommy, will be in Pittsburgh with his girlfriend's family anyway, so she and her husband, Tom, will see him at the game. She'll make prime rib for her daughter on Christmas Eve and bring presents — light-up Ravens hats — for her fellow Christmas morning bus travelers.

"It's going be a great Christmas," she said. "Very memorable."

Several local church leaders noted that many religious services are on Christmas morning or Christmas Eve — and won't conflict with the game. A Christmas Eve game, for instance, would have been tough for families who often attend services that night so they can spend the next morning exchanging presents.

"The important thing is for people to spend time worshiping the Lord and giving thanks for his presence and spending time with family," said Monsignor James M. Barker of St. Ignatius Church, Hickory in Harford County. The Ravens game "is late enough this year that all of that can happen."

Jim Casciotti, pastor of St. Ignatius Church in Baltimore, also sees room for both traditions: "Well now, Christmas is a holy day and a holiday, so they should go to Mass and enjoy the game afterwards — hoping, of course, that the Ravens win.

"Football on Christmas Day is fine by me."

Several Baltimore-area bars plan to open on Christmas afternoon to accommodate the football crowd. Dave Rather struggled with his decision to open three Mother's Grille locations an hour before kickoff.

"We hate asking people to work on Christmas," Rather said. "But we feel that as a Raven headquarters, we must be open. It's practically a playoff game against our biggest rivals, so we must be open to support the team."

Maryland Live said it would show the game on the floor and stage its "They Score You Win" promotion, in which fans can win free slots play. A progressive jackpot rises when the Ravens score. Horseshoe Casino Baltimore scheduled a pregame tailgate on its plaza, an all-you-can-eat buffet and a viewing party.

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Zachary Evans, a Ravens season-ticket holder from Woodbridge, Va., hopes the holiday will be unforgettable, but not entirely because of the game. He planned to go to New York with his girlfriend's family and propose to her on Christmas Eve.

"My hope is she says yes, and if she complains about watching the game on Christmas, I can just tell her to look at her finger," Evans said.

Colleen Gizinski plans to have the family over for a delayed Christmas celebration on Friday, and the last thing she wants is her grandchildren taunting her about a Steelers victory. She's hoping for a Ravens upset — even if it upsets the kiddos.

"I hope I have to deal with their little boo-hoo faces," she said.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun staff reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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