Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in the December 17 edition of CNN’s Royal News, a weekly dispatch bringing you the inside track on Britain’s royal family. Sign up here.
They may be royal but they’re still a family – and just like the rest of us, the Windsors have their own holiday traditions and fun.
As for most people, things kick off with travel home. For the Queen, that usually means heading to her country estate of Sandringham for the family’s annual Christmas retreat.
It’s not yet clear if she’ll still make the trip, as the Omicron Covid variant is now wreaking havoc across the UK. A pre-Christmas lunch the monarch hosts for extended family has already been canceled as a precaution, a source at Buckingham Palace told CNN Thursday. The annual event is normally an opportunity for her to spend time with the wider family in the lead up to Christmas before relocating to the countryside. But it was felt the meal would put too many people’s Christmas arrangements at risk if it went ahead, according to the source. While there is “regret” that it’s been called off, the source added, the decision was believed to have been “the right thing to do.”
Immediate family members have traditionally gathered to celebrate the festive season at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, about 100 miles north of London, though they did relocate to Windsor Castle in the ’60s when the monarch’s children were still tiny.
If the family is able to congregate, the Queen will probably take great joy in reclaiming her hosting duties, after breaking with tradition to have a quiet Christmas last year because of the pandemic. But it will also be bittersweet for the matriarch as it’ll be the first holiday season since the death of Prince Philip, her husband of 73 years.
The Queen typically makes her way to Sandringham a few days before the rest of her clan for a final check of preparations. It’s not yet known when or how the monarch will relocate to her rural bolt hole, but in past years she’s often hopped on board a normal scheduled train from King’s Cross station in London to make the journey.
Unlike Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle, Sandringham is the Queen’s privately owned house. Being there gives her time with her loved ones, away from cameras and the public’s watchful gaze. It’s an opportunity to unwind and enjoy each other’s company, but because of space issues, invitations to Christmas are usually only extended to immediate family.
The Queen has from time to time made notable exceptions, such as when she welcomed the then Meghan Markle to the estate before she wed Prince Harry.
Once guests have arrived at Sandringham – the majority reportedly on Christmas Eve – the fun begins. We can assume that merriment starts with afternoon tea to get everyone settled. Later, the royals don their finest attire for a swanky black-tie dinner, having laid out their gifts on nearby trestle tables.
After the glitzy meal, it’s time to open presents – a German custom embraced by the Queen’s great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, when she married Prince Albert.
Christmas morning features another tradition inherited from Victoria, dating back to the 16th century – the family’s pilgrimage on foot to St. Mary Magdalene Church, which is also located on Sandringham’s sprawling 20,000-acre estate (the Queen travels there by car). While the Queen is a deeply religious person, it is not yet clear whether the event will be able to take place as the UK grapples to curb the spread of the Omicron variant. It won’t escape the Queen’s thoughts that her family’s presence could invite the public to gather along the route.
Then it’s back home for lunch before the family hunkers down to watch the matriarch’s pre-recorded Christmas broadcast to the nation on the TV. The afternoon brings a country walk followed by an evening of parlor games.
Prince William revealed “food is quite important to me at Christmas” in an interview with a hospital radio station this week. The duke said: “There’s always a tiny little bit of space left in my stomach somewhere for a bit more turkey or sausage or, you know, a bit of wine.”
He added: “Bringing the family together at Christmas time is always lovely” and “when see my children meet up with my cousin’s children and they all have a wonderful time playing together, it’s very special.”
Boxing Day – as December 26 is known in the UK – brings yet another long-standing event, with family members heading out for a pheasant shoot in the grounds.
How long the Queen stays in Sandringham tends to vary. It’s become a tradition that she remains there until after February 6, the anniversary of her father’s death, so she can mark it privately. But she will often attend a local engagement, aware that the date also marks the beginning of her reign.
Away from Sandringham, there are other traditions to be upheld. Family, friends and the royal household usually receive one of the 750 cards featuring a treasured family photo that the Queen sends out each year. Other recipients can include British and Commonwealth Prime Ministers, Governors-General and High Commissions.
The Queen’s staff in the Royal Household can also expect Christmas puddings from the monarch – a convention also adopted by her grandfather George V and her father King George VI. Some years, the Queen personally hands out the gifts to some of her staff at royal properties.
With the death of Prince Philip, and her country still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the past 12 months have been a trying period for Britain’s monarch. It also hasn’t helped that she herself suffered a health wobble and had to cancel public engagements toward the end of the year.
“In 1992 the Queen, in a famous speech at the Guildhall, said ‘this is my annus horribilis, my terrible year’ and I do think that she might say it about this year as well,” royal historian Michael L. Nash told CNN.
While some will be concerned, given her advancing age, the Queen’s escape to the privacy and the embrace of her family in Sandringham will be another indication that she is back on the mend. There’s no question she’ll be looking forward to the year ahead and hoping to get back out and about among her subjects.
WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING?
The Queen and the Sultan.
Elizabeth II was all smiles as she welcomed the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, in person at Windsor Castle on Wednesday. The Middle Eastern ruler was accompanied by his wife and first lady, Sayyida Ahad bint Abdullah Al Busaidiyah.
Charles and Camilla spread Christmas cheer.
More royal family members are getting into the holiday spirit with Christmas only a week away. The Prince of Wales and his wife, Camilla, met volunteers and support staff at a foodbank in southwest London on Tuesday. During the visit, the pair expressed their gratitude to those working there to support the community. A day later, Camilla got a little help decorating the Clarence House Christmas tree when children from two charities of which she is patron paid her a visit. Her special guests were treated to festive musical arrangements performed by the Band of the Welsh Guards. You can watch a clip of the fun and games here.
PHOTO OF THE WEEK
Formula One superstar Lewis Hamilton received a knighthood from the Prince of Wales at Windsor Castle on Wednesday for his stellar career and contributions to motorsport. Hamilton’s knighthood came just days after the Brit fell agonizingly short of winning a record eighth title following a dramatic showdown with Max Verstappen at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The 36-year-old is the fourth F1 driver to be knighted, following in the footsteps of Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart. Hamilton, though, is the first to be awarded the honor while still racing. (Reporting by CNN’s Duarte Mendonca)
Historically, the royals adore Christmas trees. In fact, Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, is credited with having introduced the custom to the royal family. That fervor also extended to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who helped popularize the tradition across the nation. These days the Queen and her family usually put final touches on their Christmas tree together.
The Queen also donates trees every year to Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and St. Giles’ Cathedral and the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh. She also sends trees to churches and schools in the Sandringham area.
Check out this magnificent time-lapse of staff at Windsor decorating the castle’s awesome centerpiece in St. George’s Hall, which took a whopping 13 hours.
FROM THE ROYAL VAULT
The pandemic led to some major disruptions for families across the UK last year – and the royal family was no exception. Restrictions meant that we didn’t get as many royal moments over the festive period – the usual Christmas day family walk to church, for example.
However, the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall did record a special reading of the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Some of the famous faces to join the star-studded reading included actors Maggie Smith, Ncuti Gatwa and Tom Hardy. It was all to raise funds for The Actors’ Benevolent Fund – a charity of which Charles is patron, which supports actors and stage managers. Take a look:
POSTCARDS FROM ROYALS AROUND THE GLOBE
A room fit for a prince.
The Omicron variant might be pushing Covid-19 cases back up once more but that isn’t stopping us from continuing to add to our travel bucket lists. Undoubtedly one of the coolest destinations in the world is Sweden’s Icehotel, and it’s just launched its 32nd incarnation with a dash of royal magic. That’s because it features a brand-new room designed by Prince Carl Philip of Sweden! Named “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the deluxe suite features walls adorned with ice blocks filled with colorful flowers and fauna and a stunning ice chandelier hangs from the ceiling. The seasonal hotel is located 124 miles north of the Arctic circle in Jukkasjärvi. Find out more here.
Crown Princess of Denmark tests positive for Covid-19.
Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark, has tested positive for Covid-19, according to a statement posted on the Royal House’s website Wednesday. “Her Royal Highness is staying in isolation at Frederik VIII’s Palace at Amalienborg. There is no indication that others in the family are infected,” the statement read. The palace added that the Royal House was “receiving advice from the Danish Patient Safety Authority concerning detection of infection. The Crown Princess will remain in isolation until it is once again safe to end the isolation according to the applicable guidelines.” (Reporting by CNN’s Martin Goillandeau)
Dutch royals break Covid-19 rules.
The Dutch king, Willem-Alexander, has admitted it “was not right” to throw an outdoor party for Princess Amalia’s 18th birthday, falling outside government Covid-19 guidelines. According to a letter sent by Prime Minister Mark Rutte to the Dutch parliament, dated Thursday, the royals hosted 21 people in the park near the royal palace the Saturday before. Current government advice means people in the Netherlands should have no more than four visitors over the age of 13 in their home per day. The park is considered part of the private home of the royal family, a government spokesperson told CNN. Read the full story.
Charles attended a six-week course at the naval college in September 1971, after which he served on the guided missile destroyer HMS Norfolk and two frigates. Later in his navy career, he qualified as a helicopter pilot and joined the 845 Naval Air Squadron, which operated from the commando carrier HMS Hermes.
Thanks for reading today’s send – hopefully we brought a bit of festive cheer to your Friday. We won’t be sending out an edition next week on Christmas Eve but will be back the following week. To those who are celebrating, we hope you have a restful holiday season with your loved ones. Happy holidays!
–Max & Lauren