Who is (and isn’t) on the guest list, who gets stuck in the smallest bedroom and the festive TV special everyone has to watch… YOU is given an intimate insight into the Queen’s Christmas celebrations – plus nostalgic, rarely seen snapshots from the royal album
With lights twinkling on the tall Christmas tree and a family gathered for a feast, the 93-year-old great-grandmother is always the guest of honour. Her family all seated around wearing paper crowns pulled from crackers, her face lights up with good cheer, despite the trials and tribulations of recent weeks. In many ways the scene will be familiar to millions of other families gathering up and down the country on Christmas Day: sharing a turkey meal, watching the Queen’s speech, a rather gaudy Santa Claus decoration on the mantelpiece and the usual tensions that occur between relatives.
Footage of the Queen with the young princes Andrew and Edward featured in her 1971 Christmas broadcast
The Queen in the study at Sandringham making her first Christmas broadcast, for radio, 1952
The Queen’s first televised Christmas message at Sandringham in 1957. The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast has been a tradition for 67 years – to date, she has made a speech every year of her reign bar 1969 (when, having already appeared in the Royal Family documentary, she chose to issue a written message instead)
Yet this is a family quite unlike any other. For this great-grandmother is Queen Elizabeth II and the enchanting setting is Sandringham in Norfolk where the Royal Family gathers every year for the festivities. The tree is even decorated with delicate glass ornaments that once belonged to Queen Victoria.
Few have seen inside the royal Christmas Day celebrations but YOU has gleaned a fascinating insight into what it takes to Christmas like a Windsor. It’s a glorious and perplexing mix of real tiaras and gaudy tinsel, special menus for the corgis, extravagant crackers and how the real party kicks off once the Queen has retired to bed…
There is a sense among the royal household that just as Balmoral, the Queen’s Scottish residence, is synonymous with summer, Sandringham is associated with winter. When their children were small, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh spent Christmas Day at Windsor but for many decades now they have celebrated at the royal residence in Norfolk with its imposing gates.
The formalities start long before the guests assemble. By now, Her Majesty, maintaining a tradition started by her great-great-grandfather Prince Albert, has already been up to Sandringham to choose a 20ft Norfolk spruce from the grounds. She will have approved her Christmas message and recorded it for transmission. It’s a tradition she holds dear. Her first message was broadcast from the study at Sandringham House on Christmas Day in 1952, ten months after the death of her father George VI. A former aide said: ‘It’s always written by the Queen herself and often it’s done in one take. You have to remember she is a professional who has been doing this for years – far longer than any of the camera crew and producers.’
‘Oh yes, one is!’: Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in Aladdin at the Royal School, Windsor, 1943
The Royal Family – with corgis in tow – arriving at Sandringham, 1970
A snowy-day hack: the Queen with Princess Anne at Sandringham in 1979
The Royal Family gather for the Christmas Day service, Sandringham, 1988
The Queen, Andrew, Charles and Princess Margaret taking the train from London to Sandringham for Christmas, 1962
Before leaving London, the Queen hosts a lunch and early Christmas party at Buckingham Palace for the extended family such as Princess Margaret’s daughter Lady Sarah Chatto and Lord Frederick ‘Freddie’ Windsor, son of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. Then, the week before Christmas, the monarch boards the train to King’s Lynn to begin her Christmas break at Sandringham, where the Duke of Edinburgh spends most of his time now he has retired from full-time royal duties. For Her Majesty, it is a time for her family to come together and set aside their differences. It’s one day of the year when the Queen is not compelled to attend to the ‘red box’ – the daily government briefing documents she receives from No 10. It should be a time to eat, drink and be merry, which may well be a herculean task this year even for a monarch whose unflappable good sense and diplomacy is admired around the world.
In truth, 2019 was another annus horribilis for the Queen. It started badly, with the Duke of Edinburgh, now 98, responsible for flipping his car in a crash with a vehicle carrying a woman and her nine-month-old baby. He was forced to apologise for the accident, which could easily have led to fatalities.
Last month, Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second son, gave a catastrophic interview about his baffling friendship with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Rather than showing empathy for Epstein’s many victims who were trafficked to sex parties by the American billionaire, Prince Andrew sought to provide excuses for his own appalling behaviour. As the scandal threatened to destabilise the monarchy and overshadow the general election, the Queen and heir-apparent Prince Charles asked the Duke to step down from royal duties for the foreseeable future.
Diana, Princess of Wales and Prince Harry at a Christmas carol service, 1993
Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie with festive goody bags, 1997 (left); Prince Harry dressed as a shepherd for his school Christmas play in 1988
Princes Charles, Harry and William on their way to the annual Christmas Day church service, Sandringham, 1998
The Queen with her grandson Peter Phillips, 1985
Epstein-gate will at least have diverted attention away from Prince Harry and Meghan, who have decided to give the Sandringham Christmas a swerve altogether. The Duchess of Sussex revealed that she felt so low since joining ‘the Firm’ that she was just ‘existing, not living’. Instead, Meghan and Harry will spend their baby son Archie’s first Christmas with Meghan’s mother Doria. They were quick to point out to critics that not only had the Queen approved their decision but there was ‘precedent’ for staying away. After all, it’s something the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge did when their children were very young, spending Christmas with Kate’s parents Carole and Michael Middleton at their family home in Berkshire.
Despite disapproval from certain quarters, there is one person who would no doubt have applauded their decision: Prince Harry’s late mother Princess Diana. Diana never felt at home during the Sandringham Christmas celebrations. Former staff reveal she would sneak off to the kitchens to gossip about musicals. And with a tight schedule that requires at least five outfit changes a day and set times for everything – including an exacting time slot of just 50 minutes for Christmas Day lunch – the tone is more that of a military operation than a relaxed family get-together.
So while Meghan and Harry are perhaps barbecuing a turkey in California (Meghan once revealed the recipe on her former lifestyle blog), what will they be missing? Well, members of the Royal Family arrive on Christmas Eve in order of seniority, with the most junior royals driving up to the Sandringham gates just after 9am and the more senior members, including the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, arriving later. William and Harry usually spend the afternoon in the annual football match with locals and staff.
Of all the royal residences, Sandringham is known as the smallest; or perhaps more accurately in the eyes of normal folk, the least grand. With new additions – this year Princess Eugenie’s husband Jack Brooksbank is expected to join the celebrations – around 30 members of the Royal Family will be there. The more junior members can find themselves bunking down in cramped rooms that during other parts of the year might serve as staff quarters.
Upon arrival, luggage is taken to the guests’ rooms and unpacked while they are invited to sit down to afternoon tea in the Sandringham saloon under its ornate painted ceiling. Here they are treated to afternoon tea. Light sponge cakes, scones and finger sandwiches are served with a pot of earl grey tea. In the Germanic tradition dating back to Prince Albert, the Royal Family’s gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve at teatime and laid out on trestle tables. At 6pm sharp the gifts are opened. But what does one buy for the family who has everything? Diana found to her horror that the answer was not the expensive gifts she bought for her first royal Christmas as the Princess of Wales. Imagine the scene when she gave Princess Anne a fine cashmere sweater and found in return that she had been gifted a novelty loo-roll holder. Diana soon learned the ‘cheap and cheerful’ rule, however, and one year gave Sarah, Duchess of York, a leopard-print bathmat. Other classic joke gifts have been a white leather toilet seat Prince Charles received from his sister Princess Anne; a ‘grow your own girlfriend’ kit that Kate bought a bachelor Prince Harry before he met Meghan and, reputedly, a shower cap for the Queen adorned with the words ‘Ain’t life a b****?’ The giver? A mischievous Harry, of course.
The Queen admiring festive decorations with the Queen Mother at Buckingham Palace in 1998
The royal Fab Four – William, Kate, Meghan and Harry – arrive for church in 2018
The family – led by the Queen, with Princess Diana beside her – after the Christmas service at St Mary Magdalene Church, 1985
‘It’s Christmas – we’re allowed!’ Princess Charlotte and Prince George with candy cane treats in 2016
The 20ft Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, 2017. For the human Windsors, as with most families, Christmas Day is a long procession of meals, snacks and treats which, for the Queen, begins at 9am sharp when an aide will knock on the door with a light breakfast tray of fruit, coffee and toast. Other guests will be treated to a buffet breakfast with sausages and cereals
In the evening, once the children are in bed, it’s a grown-up black-tie affair where guests meet for pre-dinner martinis. The women will be in glamorous ballgowns wearing tiaras and jewels. As for the four-course feast, there will be a starter then perhaps a beef course followed by cheese and a dessert (preferably chocolate, the Queen’s favourite). The Queen will already have approved the Christmas Eve menu and all the dishes through to Boxing Day dinner. Written in French, the menu – containing three choices per meal – is presented to Her Majesty by the chef and the Queen is required to tick her preference.
Incredibly, Darren McGrady, a former royal chef who worked for the Queen for 15 years, says there are also special menus for the corgis. Today there are only two dogs – dachshund/corgi crossbreeds (‘dorgis’) called Vulcan and Candy. These loyal members of the family have been known to tear through the corridors and trip up visitors, but at least the monarch can feel safe in the knowledge that they will never embarrass her with toe-curling television interviews. As such, they are rewarded with beef and rabbit on Christmas Day.
For the human Windsors, as with most families, Christmas Day is a long procession of meals, snacks and treats which, for the Queen, begins at 9am sharp when an aide will knock on the door with a light breakfast tray of fruit, coffee and toast. Other guests will be treated to a buffet breakfast with sausages and cereals.
Then it’s a non-negotiable outing to St Mary Magdalene Church for the 11am service. Members of the Royal Family walk the 330ft route to the 16th-century church while the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh will be driven before getting out to meet well-wishers. The Queen has been said to carry a crisp £5 note in her handbag for the collection.
Back at Sandringham, pre-lunch drinks are served after church – gin and Dubonnet for the Queen and beer for the Duke of Edinburgh – while the children too young to behave themselves for the duration of a family lunch are whisked off to the nursery with their nanny.
Given that almost everything else about the day is heavily prescribed, it’s surprising to learn that seats for the adults are unassigned and the Queen often chooses to sit in the middle rather than at the head of the table. Adorned with white linen, the table is decorated with candelabras, wine decanters and a sprig of the Holy Thorn, which since before the Reformation has been cut from the garden of St John the Baptist in Glastonbury and sent to the monarch as a sign of loyalty. In among it all, the bespoke handmade crackers, provided by Royal Warrant holder Tom Smith, take pride of place. In what the monarch must see as a rather amusing role reversal, everyone but the Queen wears the paper crowns. The content of the crackers, however, is a carefully guarded secret but aides say they contain gifts such as silver cufflinks or leather luggage tags which often cost much more than the joke presents the family exchange on Christmas Eve. No one has room for a starter after their heavy breakfast, so the head chef comes straight out to carve the roast turkey which has been procured from a local butcher in nearby Dersingham.
McGrady says he was delighted by the royal traditions and loved to serve the family on Christmas Day. Of the festive feast, he says: ‘It’s the one day of the year that the head chef is permitted to enter the dining room, to carve the bird at the table. Once he’s finished, the Queen will offer him a tot of whisky and wish him a happy Christmas. The turkey is served with mashed and roast potatoes, chestnut or sage and onion stuffing, cranberry sauce and bread sauce. Vegetables include brussels sprouts, carrots and roast parsnips.’ With her meal, he says, the Queen enjoys drinking the aromatic German white wine gewürztraminer.
Behind the scenes, there is great anticipation over the Christmas hamper – previously sent from Harrods but now from Fortnum & Mason and containing organic jams, chutneys and goodies for the Christmas teatime table.
‘The Harrods hamper used to be sent as an appreciation of the Royals’ business,’ says McGrady. ‘It would arrive on Christmas Eve containing wheels of stilton, a whole foie gras en croute and other exotic treats. One year, Prince Charles had a rival hamper sent, full of organic produce from his Highgrove estate. The Duke of Edinburgh wandered into the kitchen and was poking around, asking questions. “It’s from the Prince of Wales,” I said. “It’s his organic food.” Philip rolled his eyes. “Bloody organic,” he muttered, and stomped off.’
Whether organic or not, the calorie count, for one day at least, is not a concern. For dessert, a homemade Christmas pudding is served with brandy butter, but there’s no hidden sixpence – one wouldn’t want to spark a royal choking incident. The Christmas pudding the Royals eat on Christmas Day will be one prepared a year in advance and left to grow in flavour.
The Queen records her Christmas message to the Commonwealth in 3D for the first time – from the White Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace – in 2012
The Duchess of Cambridge at a festive event in December 2015
Diana at the Christmas Day service at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, 1987
After lunch guests retire to their rooms and, bizarrely, gather later to watch the Queen’s Christmas message on television before taking the afternoon at ease or enjoying a walk in the grounds before another outfit change and joining together again to graze on an evening buffet which features a boar’s head, hams, seafood and separate little tables set out for the Queen’s favourite Bendicks chocolate mints.
After the evening supper, no one must retire before the Queen. Once the royals have drifted off to bed, the real party can begin, says McGrady. The 100-strong staff meet for an evening disco and drinks but still need to be up the next day to prepare the 6.30am breakfast before the annual Boxing Day hunt.
Courtiers are at pains to point out that the staff are well provided for and work on a rota basis. For Christmas, the Queen will give them all a personal gift. In past years these have included Christmas puddings and china tankards. So what awaits the staff this year? ‘Well, we wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise for everyone,’ jokes a senior courtier.
The day after Boxing Day is no doubt a relief for everyone. The festivities are over for another year. The Duchess of Cornwall will depart for Ray Mill House in Wiltshire where she’ll celebrate a late Christmas with her own children and grandchildren before going to Scotland with the Prince of Wales for the Hogmanay celebrations. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh stay on in Sandringham until February.
And, whichever parts of the Windsor Christmas may appeal to you, few could disagree with Kate and William’s post-Christmas plans. Shortly after the Sandringham bonanza they have been known to jet off to Mustique – the island in the Caribbean where VIPs enjoy the pristine sandy beaches in blissful seclusion. Now that’s surely a Windsor tradition that even Meghan and Harry could get behind.
How the royals shaped Christmas
Many of today’s festive traditions began with Queen Victoria
Victoria and her German-born husband Prince Albert are responsible for many of the Christmas traditions that we celebrate in Britain today. ‘Christmas, I always look upon as a most dear happy time, also for Albert, who enjoyed it naturally still more in his happy home, which mine, certainly, as a child, was not,’ she wrote in her journal on Christmas Eve 1841. ‘It is a pleasure to have this blessed festival associated with one’s happiest days. The very smell of the Christmas trees, of pleasant memories. To think, we have two children now, and one who already enjoys the sight – it seems like a dream.’
An illustration of the Royal Family around a Christmas tree (above) was published in the 1840s and soon every British family wanted one
At the beginning of the 19th century, Christmas was barely recognised. Albert popularised the tradition of bringing fir trees inside and decorating them. An illustration of the Royal Family around a Christmas tree (above) was published in the 1840s and soon every British family wanted one.
In 1833 the first book of carols was published and in the 1840s British confectioner Tom Smith invented the Christmas cracker with sweets inside.
The Royal Family continue to give presents on Christmas Eve in the Germanic tradition. There were no comedy shower caps for Queen Victoria, however. One gift from Prince Albert was a jewelled brooch which featured a portrait miniature of their first child, Victoria, painted as a cherub.