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How Queen Elizabeth II celebrated Christmas

Each family has its own Christmas tradition and royal families are no exception. For seven decades, Elizabeth II enjoyed the celebrations of a family Christmas which she shaped into a traditional all of her own. As the Windsors prepare to mark their first festive season since her death, we look at how Elizabeth II made Christmas a very special time for family.

A Very Big Family Lunch

A week before Christmas, Queen Elizabeth II invited the extended Royal Family to Buckingham Palace for a lunch. These festivities were a way for the whole House of Windsor to get together ahead of the big day as many of the Queen’s cousins celebrated the big day with their own immediate kith and kin away from Sandringham.

The Queen Takes the Train

If there’s one sight that told you Christmas was actually, really and quite absolutely just around the corner, it was the image of the Queen taking the train to Sandringham. In the last years of her reign, photos of Elizabeth II, usually in headscarf and very warm coat, railing it up to Norfolk became part of the British royal Christmas season. Once she arrived at King’s Cross, for the train to King’s Lynn, the big day was definitely imminent.

Christmas Eve at Sandringham

The Royal Family always gathered at the Norfolk Estate by Christmas Eve and no one wanted to be late because this is the time Queen Elizabeth II handed out the presents. Gifts were exchanged after afternoon tea on Christmas Eve with all the neatly wrapped offerings set out on tables and then passed around.

Christmas Day Church

The focal point for many in the UK of the royal festive season was the Royal Family’s visit to church on Christmas Day morning. Queen Elizabeth II and all her house guests made the trip to St. Mary Magdalene where Mattins are held at 11 on Christmas Day. Crowds always gathered to see them arrive while afterwards, some of the children who brought flowers presented them to Queen Elizabeth II while other members of her family did walkabouts to greet more wellwishers. The images of the Windsors on Christmas Day has a prominent place on British TV news programmes, making a family outing into a national event.

Time for Turkey

Dinner was already in the oven by the time the royals headed to church and at 1pm prompt they all sat down for a traditional Christmas lunch. Turkey (a famous product of Norfolk) and all the trimmings came first with a Christmas pudding to follow for those who still have room.

The Queen’s Speech

The annual broadcast to country and Commonwealth is a fixed point in calendars around the world, not just at Sandringham. following on from the tradition begun King George V, the Monarch speaks to the nations on Christmas Day afternoon. The message, which is pre-recorded several days before Christmas, usually takes a theme relevant to the times in which it is made. It is always broadcast at 3pm, UK time.

A Family Christmas

Christmas Day evening at these festive celebrations of Elizabeth II were all about celebrating, just as it is for any other family. Games, TV and partying were always on the to do list as the Windsors enjoyed the family time that makes every Christmas special.

King Charles III will gather his family around him at Sandringham for his first Christmas as Monarch. It will be a poignant event as they remember Elizabeth II, on their first Christmas Day without her. But it will also be a time to celebrate as a family, taking comfort in the familiarity of traditions established by Queen Elizabeth II over seventy years.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.