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Royal Christmas

How Queen Elizabeth II made history with a landmark Christmas message

Twenty-five years ago my grandfather broadcast the first of these Christmas messages. Today is another landmark because television has made it possible for many of you to see me in your homes on Christmas Day.”

Queen Elizabeth II uttered those words on Christmas Day 1957 during her first televised Christmas Message, broadcast live from the Long Library at the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. She would go on to broadcast on TV on Christmas Day almost every year for the next 65 years as her historic reign cemented the Monarch at the heart of UK Christmas celebrations.

In 1932, King George V became the first monarch to deliver a Christmas Day message, using the radio to speak to his subjects around the world. By 1957, The Queen helped revolutionise the Christmas Message once more, granting the BBC’s request to televise her speech live from the library at Sandringham, where the Royal Family was spending its holidays.

Queen Elizabeth II spoke of the value of keeping old traditions while modernising, and how the new medium would provide a more personal touch to her yuletide reflections.

“It is inevitable that I should seem a rather remote figure to many of you. A successor to the Kings and Queens of history; someone whose face may be familiar in newspapers and films but who never really touches your personal lives. But now at least for a few minutes I welcome you to the peace of my own home,” she said.

“That it is possible for some of you to see me today is just another example of the speed at which things are changing all around us. Because of these changes I am not surprised that many people feel lost and unable to decide what to hold on to and what to discard. How to take advantage of the new life without losing the best of the old.”

Queen Elizabeth II had been used to giving her Christmas Message on radio, but was a pro at adapting to the new medium according to the man in charge of producing the segment. In an interview with The Telegraph, Richard Webber reminisced of the run-through they’d done just before going live, and how “The Queen was extremely accomplished with the teleprompter and read the message brilliantly.”

She also had a moment of stage management, when the book she was supposed to quote, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan wasn’t in her hands. Webber recalled that the lines had been typed out on a sheet of paper and inserted into the book she was holding, but when she noticed that it wasn’t the correct book, she asked if there was a copy in the library for her to switch to. “Sure enough, there was.”

Queen Elizabeth II’s Christmas Message in 1957 spoke of her relative youth and modernity compared to monarchs of the past, but in typical fashion, included a commitment to duty and service that, 70 years on from her accession day, have held strong.

“In the old days the monarch led his soldiers on the battlefield and his leadership at all times was close and personal.

“Today things are very different. I cannot lead you into battle, I do not give you laws or administer justice but I can do something else, I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.

“I believe in our qualities and in our strength, I believe that together we can set an example to the world which will encourage upright people everywhere.”

However, live televised broadcasts didn’t continue for much longer; by 1959, the Christmas Message was a pre-recorded affair that allowed easier access of the tape for her various Commonwealth realms and nations.

Queen Elizabeth II went on to record a televised a Christmas Message every year except 1969, when, she wrote a message instead, feeling that she had been very visible during the year through the televised investiture of her eldest son as Prince of Wales and the release of the now much debated and somewhat controversial Royal Family documentary.

Now, for the first time, it is that same son, Charles III, who is preparing to deliver a Christmas message. It will be the first time a British King has broadcast a Christmas Day message on television.

About author

Jess Ilse is the Assistant Editor at Royal Central. She specialises in the British, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish Royal Families and has been following royalty since Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. Jess has provided commentary for media outlets in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Jess works in communications and her debut novel THE MAJESTIC SISTERS will publish in Fall 2024.