How the Royal Family’s Christmas Traditions Will Adapt to an Unusual Year

Rachel Burchfield
·5-min read

As Christmas 2020 quickly approaches, some Royal standbys remain as they have been for years: Christmas cards from the Family are being sent out, like the one from the Cambridges. Some Christmas festivities are a dip into the past, like the Queen and Philip spending the holiday away from the traditional Sandringham, the first time they’ve done so since the late 1980s. And some are entirely new, like the Sussexes Christmas tree shopping in their new home base of California earlier this month (where Harry was even mistaken for an employee!).

But, like it will be for many across the globe and as an all-too-fitting description of the Royal Family on the whole in 2020, Christmas this year will be fragmented, with smaller families within the Family spending the holiday together rather than the whole gang gathering at Sandringham, as per tradition. The Queen and Philip are spending the holiday privately at Windsor, but don’t lack for décor–think a 20-foot-tall Norway spruce decorated with 3,000 lights and hundreds of ornaments. (This isn’t even the only tree there, just the biggest.) While it is unclear on exactly where everyone else will be on December 25–save for Harry and Meghan, who are presumed to be spending the holiday in California, and Charles and Camilla, who are expected to be at Highgrove, their country house–the senior members of the Firm did reunite on the final day of William and Kate’s Royal Train tour earlier this month at Windsor for a mini-holiday Family reunion.

So, at least for this year, there will be no traditional walk from the Family’s Sandringham Estate to St. Mary Magdalene Church for 11 a.m. services on Christmas Day–not just to protect the Family, said Royal correspondent Victoria Murphy, but to discourage the crowds that form wherever the Family goes.

“It is really important that the Royal Family is taking away the public element,” Murphy said. “On Christmas Day, of course, huge crowds will gather to see them, which is obviously not ideal with coronavirus.”

So, while ardent Royal enthusiasts will miss that aspect of Christmas this year, the 3 p.m. Christmas message the Queen delivers annually is not only likely still a go this year, Murphy said–it’s more important than ever.

The Queen’s Christmas speech this year will be a very significant speech,” she said. “People pay attention to it and listen to it every year, and, during a year like this–a hugely challenging year–we look to her as Head of State to sum up our mood and bring things together like she did at the beginning of the pandemic. Her Christmas speech is an opportunity where we will be looking to her again and it will be of huge importance.”

Even in a year of upheaval, for this monarch so steeped in tradition, her speech is a bedrock: “That tradition won’t change,” Murphy said.

So, while this is an unusual year, what is a traditional Royal Christmas like at Sandringham?

“Sandringham Christmas is surrounded by much excitement and much myth,” Murphy said. “There’s a lot of speculation about different traditions and what goes on behind closed doors.”

Here’s what we know:

  • The Family doesn’t spend Christmas at Buckingham Palace, home of the Queen in London; they instead all trek out to Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. Starting in the 1960s, Christmas was typically spent at Windsor Castle (where the Family spends Easter) but, since 1988, when Windsor was being rewired, they’ve been heading out to Sandringham. Sandringham is a country retreat that has been owned by the Family since 1862 and is 100 miles north of London.

  • Not everyone gets to come to Sandringham, so the Queen hosts a lunch at Buckingham Palace about a week before Christmas for those who won’t be there for the actual day.

  • The Family arrives in a specific order at specific times on Christmas Eve, with the more junior Royals arriving first and the final guests to arrive being Charles and Camilla. (The Queen, for her part, arrives a little earlier than Christmas Eve and, per tradition, always arrives by train, arriving at King’s Lynn Station in Norfolk.)

  • The Family follows German tradition and opens presents on Christmas Eve. So what do you get the Family that has everything? The most ridiculous gift possible, apparently: The rule of thumb is to bring a gag gift for Christmas, like when Kate bought Harry a “Grow Your Own Girlfriend” kit before he met Meghan.

  • On Christmas Day, the Family publicly walks to St. Mary Magdalene Church for 11 a.m. services, but the Queen, along with a few members of the Family, also privately attends services as well. “It is a real Christmas tradition to come and see members of the Royal Family,” Murphy said. “The Queen will accept flowers from children and will chat. It’s a lovely tradition and something that will certainly come back when it can.”

  • After church, the Family enjoys a Christmas lunch and afternoon tea, then gathers to watch the Queen’s speech as a family. (The speech is typically pre-recorded before the Queen heads out to Sandringham; it’s not live, so she gets to watch with her Family.)

  • The Christmas broadcast is a tradition dating back to 1932, when the Queen was only six. The Queen was the first (and, of course, only) monarch to deliver a televised broadcast – the televised speeches began in 1957.

  • The following day, December 26, is Boxing Day in the U.K., and the Family goes out for an annual Boxing Day shoot.

  • Most Royals stay at Sandringham through the New Year, but the Queen and Philip stay all the way until February 6 each year to honor the Queen’s father, King George VI, who died on that day at Sandringham in 1952. The Christmas decorations stay up the entire time they are there.