A Glimpse into the British Royal Family’s Christmastime Traditions

By Cathleen Freedman
Photo: Courtesy of Reuters

There’s no place like home for the holidays, especially if “home” is Sandringham. Queen Elizabeth’s sprawling estate in Norfolk is perhaps best known as the setting for the royal family’s annual Christmas celebrations. It’s one of many rituals, some of which may surprise you (more on that later). However, the royals will see their plans shift this season, like so many of us. With the surge of Covid-19 cases due to the Omicron variant, the monarch will stay at Windsor Castle for the second year in a row.

While this will be the first Christmas for the Queen since her husband, Prince Phillip, passed last April, Clarence House confirmed Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla will join herand it’s believed other members of the royal family will also be present. However, Kate Middleton and Prince William will have Christmas in Norfolk with their children and the Middleton family.

It’s a marked departure for the Windsors, who rarely deviate from the past. So how does Christmas usually go for the royals? It’s full of charades, black-tie dinners, presents (of the joke variety), and other festive formalities that are nothing short of fascinating. Below, a breakdown of the British royal family’s Christmas traditions.

Highly Coveted Holiday Cards

Every year, the Queen sends out a hefty 750 Christmas cards. It usually features a family portrait and is signed off “Elizabeth R” (for “regina,” the Latin word for Queen) to politicians and heads of state, “Elizabeth” to friends, and her childhood nickname of “Lilibet” to her cousins. She begins signing cards during her summer holiday in Balmoral (HRH is nothing if not punctual). We know what you’re wondering: Who are the recipients on this all-important Christmas card list? Family, friends, members of The Royal Household, and some British and Commonwealth Prime Ministers, Governor-General, and High Commissions.

The Queen’s Gifting Extravaganza

The Queen is an expert in the gifting department. According to reports, she once personally oversaw her gift list and did all of the shopping herself, including visiting Harrods after-hours to select presents personally. In the lead-up to Christmas, Her Majesty bequeaths a gift to each member of the Royal Household, hand-delivering presents to those who have been extra nice that year. In keeping with a sweet tradition upheld by her father and grandfather, she also gifts pudding—a whopping 1,500 servings—to staff.

The Family Christmas Tree

Buckingham Palace features a trio of Christmas trees each year—a tradition Queen Victoria started in the 19th century. Famously, after an engraving depicting Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children gathered around a Christmas tree at Windsor was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848, it inspired the general British public to decorate evergreens each December.

In a pre-pandemic world, Queen Elizabeth herself would put the finishing touches on the tree at Sandringham with the help of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And while Taylor Swift may think it’s rebellious to leave the decorations “up till January,” the Queen’s stays lit well into February. Her father, George VI, passed away at Sandringham on February 6, 1952, and she honors his memory by keeping the trimmings up until then.

The Notorious Windsor Weigh-In

At the Queen’s request, each guest to arrive at Sandringham must hop upon an antique weighing scale at the beginning and end of the festivities to ensure that everyone “enjoyed themselves”—that is, gained weight. What is surely one of the most eccentric royal holiday rituals dates back to the early 1900s when King Edward VII made sure his guests—who were instructed to sit on the same scale as they arrived and again when they left—gained weight after eating the 12- to 14-course meals served in the household. Per Vanity Fair, guests who ate enough and “enjoyed” themselves were expected to gain about three pounds. The Queen has since carried on the tradition; it reportedly horrified Princess Diana, as depicted in the 2021 film Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart. 

Christmas Eve Gag-Gift Exchange

After a genteel afternoon tea on Christmas Eve, the royals exchange gag gifts. Before Prince Harry dated Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Cambridge gave him a “Grow Your Own Girlfriend” set. Meanwhile, Prince Harry once gifted his grandmother, the Queen, a shower cap with “Ain’t Life a B*tch!” printed on it. When Markle joined the family n 2017, she reportedly earned points when she gave Prince William a novelty spoon inscribed with “Cereal Killer.” It’s all done in good fun and good holiday cheer.

Eat, Drink, And Dress Royal

While the rest of us may spend the holidays in our pajamas and ugly Christmas sweaters, for the royals, there are rules and traditions governing when and how meals should be eaten, and what should be worn. There are formal dinners on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with the Queen overseeing the seating plan, which decrees that couples must not sit beside each other. The dress code is black-tie for men, full-length gowns, tiaras, and jewels for women. The Queen’s attire dictates what guests may wear.

“Once Her Majesty has chosen her dress for dinner, a handwritten notice is pinned up in the Dressers’ Corridor detailing what she will be wearing, so that the Queen’s ladies’ maids can select an appropriate dress for the lady they are looking after,” the Queen’s personal advisor and dresser, Angela Kelly, wrote in her book, The Other Side of the Coin.

At dinner, the Queen’s favorite cocktail, the “Zaza,” is served, which is ½ Dubonnet red, ½ dry gin, and garnished with orange zest. 

A Festive Royal Fashion Show

On Christmas morning, the Queen and other royal family members attend service at St. Mary Magdalene in Sandringham, giving the public a glimpse of their Christmas Day proper. The Queen undergoes several outfit changes on Christmas Day, and the ladies-in-waiting of other royals are responsible for ensuring that none of the guests clash with the Queen’s ensembles. Preparation is key. As Kelly wrote in wrote in her book: “I start to plan well in advance–around two months or so–checking to see what colors the Queen wore in previous years as I don’t want to repeat a color for a few years.” We’d expect nothing less from Her Majesty on this all-important holiday.