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Christmas with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor

An autographed picture showing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor with two gentlemen, in "remembrance of their pleasant flight from Palm Beach to Nassau in the Bahamas, where
the Duke served as Governor-General from 1940-1945. Image: SDASM Archives

Royalty has its own regal way of celebrating Christmas. The British royals had, in fact, their share of revolutionizing the way we celebrate it today. They were among those who popularized the Christmas tree and it was King George V who started the Christmas Broadcast, a tradition which succeeding monarchs faithfully maintained every December 25. When King Edward VIII abdicated the throne, he relocated himself to Europe together with the woman he loved, Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor, whose penchant for celebrating Christmas was well-known. 

In fact, Dina Wells Hood, the duke’s secretary and author of Working for the Windsors wrote: "The Duchess took Christmas seriously," busying herself as she meticulously set up the tree, prepared the turkeys, and carefully selected and wrapped the gifts for friends and loyal staff.

In May 1938, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor leased Château de la Croë, the white, detached villa set amidst an expansive grounds on the Cap d'Antibes in southern France.  The duchess had an eye for interior decorating and so she embarked on renovating the house, transforming it into a home befitting her station. Her impeccable taste was such that author Rebecca West commented: "There are not many women ... who can pick up the keys to a rented house, raddled by long submission to temporary inmates, and make it look as if a family of good taste had been living there for two or three centuries."

Here in their own little kingdom by the sea the Duke and Duchess of Windsor quietly but grandly spent 1938 Christmas, a celebration, indeed, fit for a King. In his book The Duchess of Windsor: The Uncommon Life of Wallis Simpson, Greg King notes that the couple were joined for the holidays by a number of guests, including Lord and Lady Brownlow and their family, the Edward Custs, Wallis' aunt, Bessie, and a number of other friends. When they arrived in la Croe, the visitors were welcomed by a rather cramped hall stuffed with trunks, boxes, cards and a "huge" but sparsely decorated tree that Wallis imported from Paris a week earlier. The Duchess still hadn’t made up her mind on how it should look like. One of the guests, John  McMullin, helped her decide on a white-and-silver motif while the rest of the guests worked with her until Christmas Eve to finish decorating the tree. On Christmas morning, the hosts and their visitors headed to the nearby small, Anglican church, the house of faith which the royal couple help to maintain for as long as they leased la Croe.
In the afternoon, the Duchess of Windsor would assemble her retinue of servants in the chateau's great hall. With much excitement she handed them gifts which she painstakingly shopped and wrapped. She and the duke would stand together in front of the Christmas tree and then receive each one of their household staff and their respective families.

The couple would shake hands  and exchange pleasantries with their retainers. Then, the duchess would hand over the gifts, which, according to King, ranged from practical household items to more lavish but novel stuffs, like "alligator skin wallets and handbags for women, gold cuff links and tie clips for men." It was a wonderful world which Wallis created for herself. She and Edward were, after all, the king and queen in their world and their servants, their loyal subjects.


Sources:

Hood, Dina Wells (1957). Working for the Windsors. London : A. Wingate.
King, Greg (2000). The Duchess of Windsor: The Uncommon Life of Wallis Simpson. Citadel Press.

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