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Royal Christmas

Why a king had to wait for a shepherd before beginning one of the most famous Christmas traditions of all

Every Christmas, families across the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth gather around their TVs to hear the monarch give their annual Christmas message. The tradition began with a radio broadcast in 1932 by King George V via the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Empire Service.

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The idea of a Christmas message from the sovereign was first suggested by the BBC’s founding director-general, John Reith in 1922. When he approached King George V about it, His Majesty declined as he believed the radio was mainly for entertainment. Ten years later, Reith proposed the idea as a way to inaugurate the Empire Service (now the World Service), and after some encouragement from Queen Mary, The King agreed to take part. Scripted by Rudyard Kipling, King George was originally hesitant about using the untested medium of radio but was reassured after a summertime visit to the BBC. A temporary studio was then set up at Sandringham House. During the 1932, broadcast, The King’s message was introduced from Ilmington Manor by a local shepherd, 65-year-old Walton Handy. Carols from the church choir and bells ringing from the town church were incorporated and the message is believed to have reached 20 million people across the UK, Kenya, South Africa, India, Australia, and Canada.

King Edward VIII had abdicated just before his first Christmas as King. Therefore, he never made a festive broadcast. It would be his successor, King George VI, who continued the tradition of his father’s Christmas broadcasts. In 1939, his reading was delivered during the opening stages of World War II. In his speech, he notably remarked:

“I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown. ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.'”

For many years, the speech came at the end of an hour-long broadcast featuring greetings from various parts of the Commonwealth and the British Empire. At 3:07 p.m. on 25 December 1952, nearly 10 months after her father’s death, Queen Elizabeth II gave her first Christmas message from her study at Sandringham House. Five years later, the message would be broadcast for the first time on television. This would become an annual tradition except for in 1959 and 1963 when Her Majesty was heavily pregnant. There was no message in 1969 as the Royal Family aired a special documentary and Elizabeth II felt everyone had seen more than enough of her for one year. To still acknowledge the holiday, Her Majesty issued a written message.

Up until 1996, the message was produced by BBC. From 1997 on, the message would be produced and broadcast alternately by the BBC and its main rival, Independent Television News (ITN) with a biennial rotation. It’s reported the decision was made after the BBC decided to air a controversial interview with Diana, Princess of Wales about infidelity in her marriage to Prince Charles. The Palace would deny the claim and say the new arrangements were a representation of the radio and television industries of that time. In 2011, Sky News was added to the rotation.

Sky News made history as it recorded the message in 2012 in 3D as part of The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year. At the time, Buckingham Palace said the decision was made based on wanting to do something a bit different and special for the occasion. During The Queen’s reign, the themes and directions of the annual message were decided by Her Majesty, and the text was mainly written by her. Although, she sometimes had assistance from her staff and her husband, Prince Philip. In the later years of her reign, the speech became more personal and religious in tone.

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The speeches had become widely popular over the years as they allowed the public to get a personal look at the monarch as well as see the decorations from inside the palace. Many also appreciate the rare family photos placed in the background of the set. The speech typically reflects on the last year and shows videos and photos of the highlights of it. The monarch then reflects on the New Year to come and their wishes for the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.

Planning for each address begins months in advance when the monarch establishes a theme. This way, appropriate footage can be collected and edited as needed. The actual speech itself is recorded a few days prior to Christmas. On the internet, for example, in the UK, the broadcast of the message is embargoed until 15:00 GMT on 25 December. The speech is sometimes televised at specific times, otherwise, it’s aired based on the country and its programming.

About author

My name is Sydney Zatz and I am a University of Iowa graduate. I graduated with a degree in journalism and sports studies, and a minor in sport and recreation management. A highlight of my college career was getting the chance to study abroad in London and experiencing royal history firsthand. I have a passion for royals, royal history, and journalism, which led me to want to write for Royal Central.