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A history of Christmas Broadcasts

The Christmas Broadcast is a traditional part of the Christmas Day festivities for many people across the Commonwealth and indeed across the globe. When the first Christmas broadcast was made by George V in 1932, who knew that the tradition would evolve into an important part of the Christmas celebrations in Britain and around the world?

Every year, The Queen has made a broadcast that is aired on television and radio across the globe. Within her broadcast, The Queen reflects on current issues and concerns; as well as sharing what Christmas is about for her family, which is reflected by many of the listeners. Over the years, the broadcast has shown global, national and personal events that have affected Her Majesty and the audience.

The 1932 Christmas Broadcast

The Queen’s grandfather, King George V made the very first Christmas Broadcast in 1932, his 22nd year as monarch.

The visionary founder of the BBC World Service, Sir John Reith proposed the original idea for a Christmas speech back in the year 1932. The King was extremely hesitant about using radio in this way, as it was still a new piece of technology and had not yet been widely used. However, after a visit to the BBC, The King was satisfied and agreed to take part in John Reith’s pioneering idea.

Unlike today, broadcasting this message was incredibly difficult to make and two rooms at Sandringham had to be converted into temporary broadcasting rooms.  The microphones used to record the message were connected through the post office landline to the Control Room at Broadcasting House who transmitted the connection to the BBC transmitters.

The General Post office was also used to get the message as far away to Australia, Canada, Italy, Kenya and South Africa. History was in the making as the signal went across the globe.

3:00pm was the time chosen to broadcast the message as this was the best time to reach most of the countries in the Empire. 3:00 is the time still used to date.

World renowned author and poet, Rudyard Kipling wrote the Christmas Speech which began with the words “I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all; to all men and women cut off by the snows, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them”.

20 million people listened to the first Christmas Broadcast. King George V was very impressed and made a Broadcast every Christmas Day until his death in 1936. In the last Christmas Broadcast he made, he spoke of the people’s joys and sorrows, as well as a word for his children.

King George VI’s Broadcasts

Upon George V’s death, his eldest son, now King Edward VIII never had the chance to deliver a Christmas message as his reign lasted for under a year. This meant that his younger brother, King George VI was left to address the nation in 1937 where he thanked the Empire for their support during his first year as King.

Even though the Christmas Broadcast was very popular by this point, it was still not tradition as in 1936 and 1938, there was no Christmas message. In 1939, with the outbreak of the war, King George spoke live to reassure his people.

The King broadcast a message from Sandringham to make what would become an infamous speech that had an important effect on the people as they entered war. The King said “A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it would bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall be. If it brings us continued struggle, we shall remain undaunted”. 

The belief in common cause and morale was boosted as a result of the war time Christmas Broadcasts. Since the war, every Christmas day, the monarch has broadcast to the nation.

King George VI was becoming increasingly ill in his later years and in 1951, for the first time he recorded his speech rather than delivering it live. His voice sounded strong, but the message had to be recorded in regular intervals. He thanked the British Commonwealth and Empire for the support and sympathy he had received whilst he was ill.

 The Queen’s Christmas Broadcasts

After the death of her father in February 1952, The Queen broadcast her first Christmas message in which she spoke about keeping the tradition of a Christmas Broadcast passed on to her by King George VI.

“Each Christmas, at this time, my beloved Father broadcast a message to his people in all parts of the world. As he used to, I am speaking to you from my own home, where I am spending Christmas with my family. My Father, and Grandfather before him, worked hard all their lives to unite our people ever more closely, and maintain its ideals which were so near to their hearts. I shall strive to carry on their work.”

The Queen's first Christmas message talked about how she would continue the tradition of the Christmas Broadcast (source: Youtube - The British Monarchy

The Queen’s first Christmas message talked about how she would continue the tradition of the Christmas Broadcast (source: Youtube – The British Monarchy)

The Queen also asked the public to prey for her Coronation in the summer.

Every year, The Queen has made a Christmas Broadcast except 1969 because of a repeat of a documentary called Royal Family had already been scheduled. This caused concern by the public with many questioning why tradition had been broken. This prompted The Queen to write a letter of reassurance that the Broadcast would return the following year.

In 1957, The Queen broadcast her first live televised message. This allowed viewers to see Her Majesty’s residences decorated for the Christmas festivities. Usually, the Broadcast is filmed at Buckingham Palace but occasionally the message has been filmed at Sandringham and Windsor. In 2003, The Queen made her first broadcast on location at Combermere Barracks in Windsor.

Since 1960, the Broadcast has always been filmed in advance. This allows tapes to be sent around the Commonwealth to be broadcast. The planning stage for the message always starts extremely early so The Queen can choose a theme that she wishes to address. The message is recorded days, sometimes weeks in advance for Christmas and lasts for 10 minutes. Both the BBC and ITV air the Broadcast but they alternate every two years to film and produce it.

For The Queen, the Christmas Broadcast is not a duty, but an opportunity to speak to the people and thank and reassure them.

photo credit: BBC Radio 4 via photopin cc

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