As the royal family gathered for their annual Christmas morning walk to church (with Prince George and Princess Charlotte making their debut!), two members were noticeably absent: Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.
The royal couple are currently on an extended break from royal duties and spending the holiday with their 7-month-old son Archie and Meghan’s mother Doria Ragland in Canada. They previously announced that they would take time off towards the end of the year amid concerns that the intense scrutiny they’ve faced has been tough on the couple. They also revealed that they would be spending Christmas this year with Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, instead of with the Queen and the rest of the royal family.
“The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are looking forward to extended family time towards the end of this month,” Buckingham Palace said in a statement in November. “Having spent the last two Christmases at Sandringham, Their Royal Highnesses will spend the holiday this year, as a new family, with the Duchess’ mother Doria Ragland. This decision is in line with precedent set previously by other members of the Royal Family, and has the support of Her Majesty The Queen.”
The couple posted an early morning message on their official Instagram on Christmas Day, writing: “Wishing you all a very merry Christmas.” They accompanied their post with three festive emojis, including a Christmas tree, Santa and a snowman.
They also released an adorable card featuring Archie in the lead-up to Christmas.
Meghan, 38, made her royal Christmas debut in 2017 shortly after she and Prince Harry, 35, announced their engagement. While pregnant with Archie, who the couple welcomed in May, they appeared alongside Prince William and Kate Middleton again last year.
Kate and William, both 37, previously spent Christmas away from Sandringham and the royal family’s annual celebrations. In 2016, they opted to spend the holiday with Kate’s family — and Prince George and Princess Charlotte were spotted attending a church service near Kate’s childhood home in Bucklebury.
While Meghan and Harry missed the festive event, plenty of royals were in attendance. Harry’s nephew and niece, Prince George, 6, and Princess Charlotte, 4, made their Christmas Day debuts alongside parents Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Those close to the couple say both Meghan, 38, and Harry, 35, struggle with ongoing feelings of isolation from the rest of the family, with Harry’s friend Tom Bradby—who interviewed the couple for their emotionally candid October documentary—describing them as “bruised and vulnerable.” At the same time, William and Kate, both 37, are moving further into their future roles as King and Queen. It’s no coincidence that the division comes as Queen Elizabeth, 93, hands off many of her duties to her heir, Prince Charles, 71, with William sliding in behind him.
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“Just on a human level, if you take everything else out of the equation, I don’t think they’re in very good shape to deal with anything right now,” a friend previously told PEOPLE. “Everyone is hoping that they will come back from this break stronger than ever, and maybe with some time out of the spotlight, they can figure out what path to take next.”
Spending time together as a family will be top priority for Meghan and Harry during their time away.
“Family is going to be very important for Meghan for the holidays,” a source told PEOPLE.