Whilst the majority of us may be spending this Christmas dashing to the shops in a last minute bid for presents, trying desperately to prevent the tree from toppling over under the weight of tinsel and lights, and wondering how on earth you’ll fit all those family members around the dining table; for the Royals it seems, this timeless festive ritual is a rather more civilised affair. But what exactly does go on behind the closed doors of a Royal Christmas?
At this time of year, ‘immediate’ members of the Royal Family retreat to Sandringham, the Queen’s much-loved Norfolk estate. The Big Occasion is in fact Christmas Eve (Christmas Day being set aside for the traditional Christmas Day Service – which sees the entire family in attendance). Following a prompt arrival at the estate, guests are expected to change into suitable outfits for tea, traditionally served in the White Drawing Room. Here, younger members of the family are invited to help put the finishing touches to the tree, a Norfolk spruce rumoured to be approximately 20ft, and taken from the 1,000 acre estate. One wonders who might get the daunting task of putting the star on top – no pressure there.
Historical fact: Christmas trees were made popular by Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert, who in 1841 brought an illuminated tree into Windsor Castle, to celebrate the birth of their first son, Bertie (later to be known as Edward VII).
After enjoying a cup of Earl Grey and a scone (or two), trestle tables are set up for the presents. Tape marks out sections for each member of the family, and any member of the Royal Household who may be on duty that day, including ladies-in-waiting.
But what exactly do you buy the Queen for Christmas? Diamonds? Pearls? A new racehorse? Well, in true British style it seems, the Royal Family are happy not to take themselves too seriously when it comes to exchanging gifts. Presents are traditionally ‘joke’ offerings – strictly no cashmere, or jewels (at least not whilst one is on the Norfolk estate, it’s terribly materialistic). Kate is rumoured to have given Prince Harry a ‘Grow-Your-Own-Girlfriend’ kit last year, whilst Prince Charles is apparently rather attached to the white leather loo-seat given to him by Princess Anne a few Christmases ago. It has even been reported that Harry once gave his grandmother a bath hat with the slogan, ‘Ain’t life a bitch!’ on the front. Classy.
Presents aside, the guests retire to their rooms for a second change, this time for an evening drinks reception and dinner. Unfortunately for Prince Harry, ‘strip billiards’ is not included in the evening’s festive fun (although one can be certain that he’d no doubt do rather well if it were). As for the odd Royal tipple, The Queen is known to be rather partial to a Dubonnet & Gin, while both William and Harry are said to prefer a Sandringham cider, brewed from the estate’s apples. The family traditionally sit down at 8:15pm for a candlelit three-course dinner. At around 10pm, the women move to another room for coffee, whilst the men are offered liqueurs. The Queen is said to go to bed at around midnight, and no-one may leave the party until her Majesty retires. In other words, no snoring on the sofa after dinner.
Christmas Day begins with a full English Breakfast, before the annual family outing to Sandringham Parish Church at 11am, where crowds often gather to catch a glimpse of the Royals and wish them a Merry Christmas. The sermon itself does not exceed 12 minutes – just in case any of the younger royals get a little bored and start running up and down the pews (Prince Harry included). At the house, preparations are under way for the Christmas dinner, the focal point being the Norfolk turkey. The feast commences at 1:15pm, followed by the Queen’s speech at 3pm – a Christmas tradition that many families up and down the country share. In the afternoon, several members of the family are known to take the dogs for a walk, play charades or watch TV.
I know what you’re thinking; all that changing outfits and constant eating must be exhausting. But the weekend isn’t over just yet. On Boxing Day, after a kedgeree breakfast, the family head out for the annual pheasant shoot on the estate. The men traditionally take part in the shooting, whilst The Queen, not adverse to getting her hands a little dirty, is known to help pick up any game caught on the shoot.
So there you have it, a whistle-stop guide to Christmas at Sandringham. And yet, behind all the Royal protocols and quirky traditions, it seems that a Royal Christmas is really no different to anyone else’s. Because whilst it’s true that most of us may struggle to squeeze a 20ft tree into our homes, let alone just so happen to have a few dozen staff on hand to help; what Christmas is really all about is spending time with family, Royal or not. And after all, it’s all just organised chaos really, isn’t it?