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The British Royal Family at Christmas

The British Royal Family celebrates Christmas at Sandringham. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Royal Christmas is one of the highlights which shape the Royal Family’s year. “Just like her subjects,” Trevor Hall writes, “the Queen feels that she and her relatives have deserved those few brief days together—a respite, a reunion, a polite merrymaking after a year of intense activity, unremitting publicity, triumph and difficulty, brickbats and acclamation.”

The Royal Family usually heads to Sandringham House, the Queen’s country estate in Norfolk for Christmas and New Year.  But before that, the Queen hosts a pre-Christmas lunch at Buckingham Palace. The dinner is a royal tradition which allows the monarch to see members of the extended royal family who cannot join her on Christmas.  

Before Christmas Eve, the Queen and Prince Philip would lead the royal exodus to Sandringham. Until the 1960s, Christmas was spent at Sandringham. However, the growing royal family prompted her to celebrate the holidays at the “more numerous and spacious rooms of Windsor Castle” until 1988 when Windsor Castle had to be rewired. That year’s holiday gathering was moved back to Sandringham.  

Even the Christmas celebration have to have its routines, albeit in a more relaxed manner.  The Queen and Prince Philip will always be the first to arrive in Sandringham. By 9am on Christmas Eve, the junior members of the Royal Family arrive followed shortly by the senior members.  The royals are a stickler to deeply traditional Christmas but that doesn’t prevent them from introducing their own “cheap and cheerful” gift-giving ceremony on Christmas Eve.

The Royals and the Christmas Tree

There is little denying that it is mainly because of the British Royal Family that putting up the Christmas tree became popular tradition. Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, is said to have introduced the Christmas tree to the Royal Family. Prince Albert later imported spruce firs from his native Coburg. By the 1850s, the tradition of setting up Christmas trees already caught up with the masses. Today, The Queen and Members of her family, usually make the finishing touches on their Christmas tree.

“All the family help decorate the 20ft Norfolk spruce when they arrive at Sandringham on Christmas Eve,” Lady Elizabeth Anson, the Queen’s cousin revealed. “ Prince Philip always places  the gold star at the top, and Queen Victoria’s little glass angels take pride of place,” She continued.

“Cheap and Cheerful” Exchange of Gifts

On Christmas Eve, members of the Royal Family place their presents on trestle tables covered with white linen. Then, they would exchange their gifts after teatime, according to the Royal Family’s website.  They prefer cheap but hilarious gifts over lavish presents. For example, Princess Anne once gave Charles a white leather loo seat while William gave Philip a gumboot-shaped soap. Harry presented the Queen with a shower cap with the inscriptions ‘Ain’t life a bitch?’ The Duchess of Cambridge once gave Prince Harry, a ‘grow your own girlfriend’ kit.

Lady Elizabeth Anson also explains that the Queen delights in receiving useful, practical presents. When she received a washing-up apron, she declared: ‘It’s just what we wanted.’ She also enjoyed receiving a casserole dish.

Once, Princess Diana, newly minted as a member of the Royal Family, “fell foul” of the royals’ “cheap and cheerful” ceremony. She ended up buying a costly cashmere sweater to Princess Anne, who, in exchange gave her a kitschy loo-roll holder. She learned her lesson and so later gifted the Duchess of  York with a leopard-print bath mat.

The Queen’s Gifts to Her Staff

It has been a practice since the reign of King George V to distribute puddings to the royal household staff on Christmas. Before the Queen gives away pudding from Harrods or Fortnum & Mason.

However, for financial reasons, the Queen now prefers Tesco’s Finest Matured Christmas Pudding.
Those who have loyally served The Queen for quite some time also receive additional Christmas gift - vouchers.

The Queen also gives money her favourite charities in Windsor. Christmas trees are also sent to Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral, St. Giles' Cathedral and the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh. Churches and schools in the Sandringham also receive a tree from Her Majesty.

Aside from puddings and trees, about 750 Christmas Cards are also sent out to members of the Royal Family and the Royal Household. The card bears the family photo and comes with the Queen and Prince Philip’s signature, 'Elizabeth R' and 'Philip,' and it also features their official cyphers. 

 However, the Duke of Edinburgh sends out 200 more cards to different regiments and organizations close to him.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Celebrations

Dinner on Christmas Eve is strictly a formal affair. “It is unusual for the Queen to sit at  the head of the table but there is a seating plan with name cards,” said Lady Elizabeth. The royals are served with goose, beef or chicken. Turkey is reserved for Christmas lunch. On Christmas morning, the royals are treated to a breakfasts of marmalade, tiptree jams, and sausages—the latter being the Queen’s favorite.

On Christmas morning, the royals would take a short walk to the church of St. Mary Magdalene for the Christmas service that typically lasts for less than an hour. As they return to  Sandringham House after the service, the royals usually stop by to chat with the crowd. It is not unusual that bouquets of flowers and gifts are given to the Queen or the members of her family by the adoring crowd.

Lunch is served at Sandringham House at 1pm. Turkey is a staple and it is usually carved by the Queen’s chef. A choice of carved cold meats in available on the sideboard, including a boar’s head!
Later, the family gathers together to watch Queen’s speech in a large Jacobean-style sitting room. The only person who begs off is the Queen, who after all recorded it in the first place.

The Christmas Broadcast was started by King George V in 1932. The shy, stammering King George VI,  continued his father’s tradition when he reigned from 1936 until 1952. When his own daughter the Queen succeeded to the throne in 1952, she originally made her broadcast live from Sandringham.  These days, the Queen’s broadcast is pre-recorded and is made available on radio, television and the internet.


Barison, Barnes(2006). The First Christmas Tree. History Today, Volume 56 Issue 12.
Griffith, Carson (2017). The Royal Family's Holiday Traditions Are Surprisingly Thrifty. Architectural Digest.
The Royal Family at Christmas.  The Royal Family’s Official Website
The Royal Family Today. Foreword by the Earl of Lichfield; text by Trevor Hall. Book Club Associates. 


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