All families have their own special Christmas traditions, but few are likely to have a Christmas as opulent and ceremonial as the British Royal Family’s.
From the grand surroundings of the Sandringham estate to a largely traditional Christmas dinner with the decadent addition of a salad tossed with shrimp and lobster, the Windsors’ Christmas is an appropriately regal affair in every respect but the gift-giving – which is compulsorily kept cheap and endearingly silly.
Read on for 10 little-known facts about the Royal Family at Christmas, from the grand Royal customs to the fun little quirks that will be familiar to any family – and to find out which member of the Royals loves charades the most.
The Christmas decorations stay up until February
Apart from a period that began during the 1960s – when Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward were all young babies and the Royals fell into the habit of celebrating Christmas at Windsor – Queen Elizabeth II has always celebrated Christmas at Sandringham. The family returned to Sandringham in 1988 when Windsor castle was being rewired, and Christmas has taken place there ever since.
Although her close family arrive en masse on Christmas Eve and stay for the festive period, the Queen’s stay is considerably longer. She – and her christmas decorations – stay up at Sandringham for two months, with the decorations only coming down on February 6th; the day her father King George VI passed away in 1952.
Prince Harry once gave the Queen a bawdy shower cap…
The shower cap was emblazoned with the slogan: “Ain’t life a bitch”.
… which is part of a family tradition of exchanging cheap joke gifts
The Queen is characteristically austere in some aspects of her Christmas. Not only are the decorations at Sandringham said to be modest in comparison to those at Buckingham Palace, but she also imposes a rule that family members keep their Christmas gifting cheap and cheerful.
Prince Philip is appointed gift ‘supervisor’ and oversees the handing out of presents, as well as giving the green light for when each gift should be opened. In his time, he has overseen gifts such as a leather toilet seat from Princess Anne to Prince Charles, and a grow-your-own-girlfriend kit from the Duchess of Cambridge to Prince Harry (pre-Meghan Markle). Diana once breached protocol by buying the entire family luxurious cashmere jumpers, but made up for it next year by getting Sarah Ferguson a leopard print bath mat.
The Royals open their presents on Christmas Eve
The House of Windsor haven’t entirely lost sight of their Germanic heritage, despite changing their name from the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha towards the end of the First World War, in a display of solidarity with their subjects. Today, the Royal Family continue to open their presents on Christmas Eve, as is the case across Europe.
The Queen gives Christmas presents to her entire staff
In a monumental display of both fairness and Christmas spirit, Queen Elizabeth II ensures that every single member of her household staff receives a Christmas present – most recent reports suggesting that for junior staff this is a £28 gift token, while senior staff receive vouchers to the tune of £35.
Perhaps the most substantial Christmassy undertaking, however, is the provision of 1500 Christmas puddings that are distributed among the approximately 550 members of the Royal Household – as well as providing Christmas trees to local schools, St Paul’s Cathedral, St Giles’ Cathedral and Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh.
Prince William and Prince Harry have an annual kickabout
The heir and the spare have for many years had a tradition of taking part in a game of football with members of the household staff and people from the local area. The pair of Princes each wear the socks of their favourite team – meaning Prince William’s shins are decked out in the Aston Villa colours, while Prince Harry’s legs are swathed in the Arsenal livery.
This year, however, the tradition will be put on hold, as Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex forego the Sandringham festivities to spend Christmas with Meghan Markle’s mother Doria Ragland in America.
A fry-up on Christmas morning
Most would find it hard to stomach the idea of a fry-up on Christmas morning – particularly with the button-popping indulgence of Christmas lunch yet to come. Not so the men of the Royal Family, however, who begin Christmas Day with a full English fry-up including bacon, kippers, eggs and mushrooms. The female Royals, meanwhile, are served a somewhat lighter breakfast of fruit, toast and coffee in their rooms.
The Queen decides when Christmas lunch is over
As with all meals involving the Queen at the palace, the pace of the dining is set by Elizabeth II herself – so you need to eat at least as quickly as her if you want to ensure your appetite is sated. According to Darren McGrady, the Queen’s personal chef of 11 years, the Palace steward stands behind the Queen, waiting for her to set down her knife and fork after each course. As soon as that happens, the course in question is over; the steward presses a button and a phalanx of footmen enter to clear the table – regardless of whether or not anyone besides the Queen has finished eating.
The Queen’s Speech is pre-recorded
As much as we’d like to think that the Queen is talking directly to us in real-time on Christmas day, the truth of the matter is that her speech is pre-recorded several days before Christmas – the giveaway being that it’s usually shot in Buckingham Palace, as opposed to Sandringham.
Perhaps the strangest thing about all this, however, is that the pre-record enables the Royals to sit down and watch their matriarch’s speech on Christmas Day – just like everyone else, except they are sitting next to the person making the speech and watching it with her!
The Queen loves playing charades
Not only do the Queen – and the rest of the Royals – love a good old game of charades, but much like the Royal Christmas lunch, it’s only over when the Queen says it is. It’s considered extremely bad form for any member of the family to turn in before the Queen has had her fill of the nation’s favourite festive game, so the Royals often stay up until after midnight, gesticulating wildly in an attempt to communicate books, films and television programmes.