How the royals celebrate Christmas

Each year, the royal family celebrates Christmas at Sandringham House, enjoying a carefully scheduled array of festive traditions.

But royal Christmases were not always spent at the Queen’s private estate in Norfolk.

In the 1960s, when the monarch’s youngest children were small and in the years that followed, many Christmases were celebrated at Windsor Castle.

St George’s Chapel – where Harry and Meghan wed in 2018 – was where the royals often gathered for a Christmas Day service.

Christmas at Windsor Castle
The Queen and other members of the royal family leave St George’s Chapel on Christmas Day in 1978 (PA)

But since 1988, when Windsor Castle was being rewired, royal Christmases returned to Sandringham.

It is regarded as the smallest of all the royal residences and with so many of the Queen’s growing family attending, relatives are crammed into the servants’ quarters, sometimes sharing rooms with their children.

This year, there will be one less family present, with Harry and Meghan choosing to celebrate Archie Mountbatten-Windsor’s first festive season with the duchess’s mother Doria Ragland.

The Sussexes
Harry, Meghan and Archie are not spending Christmas with the royals this year (Toby Melville/PA)

The traditions followed by the royal family at Christmas are a little different from many households in the UK.

While most people open their presents on Christmas Day, the royal family still keeps to the German practice of opening gifts on Christmas Eve.

Known as Heiligabend Bescherung – which translates as Christmas Eve exchanging presents – the tradition was popularised by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and other royals usually congregate in the White Drawing Room at Sandringham House the day before Christmas to put the finishing touches to a 20ft (6m) tree cut from the estate.

Sandringham
Sandringham House, the Queen’s Norfolk home (PA)

Presents are placed on a pristine white linen-covered trestle table, with cards marking exactly where each pile of gifts should be put.

The Queen likes practical presents, but not overly extravagant ones, and the royals also reportedly like to exchange joke or non-costly quirky gifts.

Diana, Princess of Wales, once fell foul of the royal rules on present-giving, apparently buying cashmere sweaters as her first festive royal presents, and getting joke gifts such as a loo-roll holder in return.

At 5pm, guests enjoy tea, scones, sandwiches and cakes from sideboards in the Saloon.

Afterwards, they dress for dinner, with the men in black tie and the women in evening gowns, with the table set with the finest china.

William and Kate
The dress code for dinner is black tie and evening gowns (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Sarah, Duchess of York, once described the royal Christmas as “exhausting”, having changed outfits seven times in 24 hours.

Sometime after 10pm, on a signal from the Queen, the dorgis – there are no corgis left – are led out and the ladies adjourn, leaving the Duke of Edinburgh to serve port or brandy to the men.

On Christmas Day, the royals wake to find stockings filled with small gifts and fruit at the foot of their beds.

Their walk to the morning service at the Church of St Mary Magdalene on the royal estate is a traditional event where they greet well-wishers.

Christmas Day walk to church
The Prince of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex arriving for morning church in 2018 (Joe Giddens/PA)

As the Queen is head of the Church of England, the Christmas Day church service is a key part of royal celebrations.

Back at the house, lunch is prepared by staff and served at 1pm. The menu includes a giant turkey reared at Sandringham.

Among the table decorations will be a sprig from the Holy Thorn tree in Glastonbury.

Each year at Christmas, the Queen receives a cutting from the garden of the church of St John the Baptist in Glastonbury, a tradition dating back to the Reformation.

Legend has it the thorn tree, which unusually blooms at both Easter and Christmas, is linked to Joseph of Arimathea and the arrival of Christianity in Britain.

The Holy Thorn
The Queen receiving the Holy Thorn on behalf of the people of Glastonbury at Buckingham Palace in 1999 (Fiona Hanson/PA)

After lunch, the royals settle down to watch the Queen’s Christmas Speech.

The Queen sometimes quietly leaves the room and lets her family watch the national address by themselves, viewing it alone to see how it comes across.

Boxing Day, when the royals enjoy a breakfast buffet of kedgeree, bacon and eggs, often involves outdoor pursuits such as shooting, riding and walking.

Queen’s Christmas broadcast
The Queen’s Christmas broadcast in 2018 (John Stillwell/PA)

Other royal Christmas traditions include presents for staff, with all members of the Royal Household receiving a gift from the Queen.

The sovereign personally hands out presents to some staff at Buckingham Palace and at Windsor Castle.

Christmas at Windsor
A Christmas tree in Windsor Castle (Steve Parsons/PA)

Continuing the tradition from her father, King George VI and her grandfather, George V, the monarch also gives some 1,500 Christmas puddings to her servants.

The Queen donates money to several charities in Windsor each year, and gives Christmas trees to Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral in London, St Giles’ Cathedral and the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh, and churches and schools in the Sandringham area.

Each year, the Queen and Philip send around 750 Christmas cards, which usually feature a family photo.

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