The British royals are sticklers for protocol, and at Christmas, they have plenty of time-honored traditions that rule the day. From a black-tie Christmas Eve dinner to a shooting party on Boxing Day, the royals may have a more formal and activity-filled holiday than most people, but in the end, it's still all about family for Queen Elizabeth. After a couple of years in which Her Majesty has seen her nearest and dearest upend so many royal rules, it's a safe bet she'll want to cling to all her favorite royal holiday customs this Christmas—at least, the ones that can be kept safely. To find out what goes into the most regal holiday of them all, here are 15 amazing royal Christmas traditions the monarchy honors every year. And for customs that have made their way stateside, check out 18 "American" Christmas Traditions We Stole From Other Countries.
The royals host holiday parties for charities all December long.
For the senior members of the royal family, their December schedules are jam-packed with holiday parties. But these aren't champagne-swilling affairs; they're part of the job of being a royal patron of a particular charity. During the holiday season, royals like Prince Charles, Prince William, and Kate Middleton throw Christmas parties to celebrate with the beneficiaries of their charities. In 2018, William and Kate hosted a party—complete with glittering faux snow—for military personnel and their families. For holiday traditions that have fallen out of favor, here are 15 Weird, Forgotten Christmas Traditions Nobody Does Anymore.
And they send out nearly 1,000 holiday cards.
Long before the age of Instagram, the royal family established the tradition of sending out their annual Christmas cards with a family photo. According to the royals' official website, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh send out 750 cards to well-wishers around the world, signed "Elizabeth R" and "Philip." The Duke has sent out an additional 200 cards to different regiments and philanthropic organizations he's affiliated with.
In recent years, the cards of the respective royal households have been dissected by royal watchers for clues on what's really going on behind the Palace walls. In 1993, after the implosion of his marriage to Princess Diana, Prince Charles sent out his own cards with a photo of himself relaxing with his sons. Diana followed suit in 1995.
Prince William and Kate Middleton usually opt for a casual photo of their growing brood and in 2019, their adorable card featured the family sitting on a motorbike and scooter.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's first holiday card as a married couple in 2018 featured a previously unseen black and white image from their wedding. Shot from behind, the photo showed the newlyweds watching the fireworks at their reception on the grounds of Frogmore House.
The Queen does her own Christmas shopping.
According to the royals' official website, some members of the royal household receive Christmas presents from the Queen. A few lucky staffers at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle get their gifts personally handed to them from Her Majesty. The Queen reportedly does most of her shopping at Harrods after hours.
In keeping with the tradition started by her father, King George VI, the Queen also gives Christmas puddings to the entire staff. About 1,500 puddings paid for through the Privy Purse (funded by the taxpayers) are distributed throughout the Palaces, as well as to the staff in the Court Post Office and to the Palace police. Of course, each pudding is accompanied by a holiday card from the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
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And she takes the train to her country home, Sandringham, a week before Christmas.
Like every holiday-obsessed family matriarch, the Queen presides over her family's Christmas festivities. And for her, that involves being the first one to arrive at the family's country estate. Her Majesty travels to Sandringham, which is about 100 miles outside of London, a week before Christmas on a public train to King's Lynn station. (However, she does rent out an entire carriage.) In past years, she's been accompanied by Prince Philip and their staff.
The entire family celebrates Christmas together at Sandringham.
For decades, attendance at Sandringham to celebrate Christmas with the Queen has been mandatory. The longstanding tradition of the entire royal family spending Christmas at the estate in Norfolk is one of Her Majesty's most beloved customs. According to the royal family's official website, during the 1960s, many Christmases were celebrated at Windsor Castle, where the royals still celebrate Easter. But since 1988, Christmas has been celebrated at Sandringham.
Many of the Queen's grandchildren don't have to travel too far to get there. After their wedding, the Queen gifted Prince William and Kate Middleton a home of their own on the estate, Anmer Hall. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were also given their own love nest in Sandringham, York Cottage. But in 2019, the Sussex family spent Christmas elsewhere with their son, Archie Mountbatten-Windsor, and Meghan's mother, Doria Ragland. For more fascinating trivia about the holiday, check out 55 Fun Christmas Facts to Get You in the Holiday Spirit.
There is a pecking order for arrivals at Sandringham.
If you thought Christmas with your in-laws was stressful, consider the fact that every arrival at Sandringham is choreographed to the minute. Everyone who is expected at the Queen's Christmas celebration is given a specific day and time for their arrival based on their status within the family. The "lesser" and most junior members show up first, with the most senior royals—Prince Charles, William, and Kate and their brood—being the last to arrive.
The Queen loves her Christmas trees.
Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, is believed to have introduced the Christmas tree to the royal family. But it was Queen Elizabeth's great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, and her husband, Prince Albert, who embraced the tradition and popularized it throughout the country in the mid-19th century. In 1848, an image depicting the couple and their family gathered around a Christmas tree decorated with candles and ornaments was published in the Illustrated London News, titled "Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle." And soon, Christmas trees took over the English-speaking world.
Today, three fir trees are brought to the Marble Hall in Buckingham Palace, where they're decorated by staffers. Former royal chef Darren McGrady told Good Housekeeping there's also a large silver artificial tree in the dining room at Sandringham, while another real tree in the house is "tastefully" decorated by the Queen's great grandchildren on Christmas Eve.
The Queen also gifts Christmas trees to churches and schools in Sandringham as well as to Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral, St. Giles' Cathedral, and the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh. For advice on how to take your holiday decor to the next level, check out 20 Genius Christmas Tree Decorating Tips, According to Experts.
Christmas Eve is a really big deal for the royals.
A very royal Christmas Eve begins with tea at 4 p.m. in the White Drawing Room at Sandringham where gifts are exchanged (rather than on Christmas Day in keeping with the royals' German heritage). Later that evening, a black-tie dinner is held for the adults, while the children are looked after in the royal nursery.
The royals give each other gag gifts.
What do you get the royal who has everything? How about a "Grow Your Own Girlfriend" kit? That's what Kate reportedly gave Prince Harry during one of his pre-Meghan Christmases. And sometimes, these gag gifts actually come in handy. According to The Sun, Prince Charles' "favorite-ever gift" is a white leather toilet seat he received from his sister, Princess Anne. He reportedly travels with it on his overseas tours!
These priceless treasures are not set out under a Christmas tree, but rather laid out on trestle tables after tea by the staff in the Red Drawing Room. Prince Philip gets to decide when everyone gets to open their presents. For holiday customs that need to make a comeback, check out 13 Old-Fashioned Christmas Traditions We Should Revive.
Men and women eat separately on Christmas morning.
McGrady told The Daily Mail that breakfast on Christmas morning is dominated by the male royals. The former chef revealed the men in the family head downstairs for an "English fry-up," which consists of eggs, bacon, mushrooms, and kippers, while the women are served a light breakfast of fruit, toast, and coffee in their rooms.
The royals go to church—twice.
The royal family and their children attend mass at the church of St. Mary Magdalene in Norfolk every Christmas morning. There is a private service where the Queen receives communion first. Then, at 11 a.m., the family makes the traditional walk to church together. Only the Queen arrives by car and is accompanied by a different royal every year.
Then, there's plenty of tippling and toasts.
McGrady told The Daily Mail that after church on Christmas Day, "the Queen has a gin and Dubonnet, while Prince Philip has beer. Everyone else will sip a glass of Veuve Clicquot." At Christmas dinner, he says, "the Queen enjoys drinking Gewurztraminer, an aromatic white wine." Cheers to Her Majesty!
The Queen loves her Christmas crackers.
The royals follow a popular Christmas Day tradition in the U.K. and open Christmas "crackers," party favors which, when pulled, pop and make a cracking sound before revealing silly, corny jokes and a paper crown inside. According to Express, the Queen has reportedly insisted on reading the jokes herself on Christmas—and yes, she even wears the crown.
The royals watch Granny on the telly.
Later on Christmas Day, the royal family gathers around the television to watch the Queen's televised Christmas message to the nation at 3 p.m. The tradition began in 1932 with her grandfather, George V. The king broadcast his Christmas address via radio from Sandringham and the Queen, who delivered her first address in 1957, continues the tradition today.
It's a wrap on Boxing Day.
After the traditional pheasant shoot and luncheon on the estate, everyone leaves in the afternoon on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas). Only the Queen and Prince Philip remain at the estate–proof that even the royals can get tired of too much togetherness over the holidays. Her Majesty stays at Sandringham until early February (the decorations stay up as long as she's there) in honor of her late father, who passed away on the estate on Feb. 6, 1952.