What to Expect at the Queen’s Christmas

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As we all know by now, Meghan Markle is due to join her first holiday with the Royal Family tomorrow. We don’t know for sure whether she’ll be staying at Sandringham House with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh or at Anmer Hall with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, but the best guesses are for the latter. Regardless, we’ll see her on Christmas Day alongside the rest of the Royal Family.

So, what exactly is she in for? Luckily, thanks to holidays traditions not having changed too much in the last several decades, we have a pretty good sense.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh move about their residences seasonally, though neither the court nor the monarch are as peripatetic as they used to be. For the majority of the year, both the Queen and her husband live in London at Buckingham Palace (though that has changed a bit for Philip since his retirement) during the week. Weekends, however, are usually spent at Windsor Castle, as is the Easter holiday when the Queen and Philip reside there from March to April. Late summer and early autumn are spent in Aberdeenshire at Balmoral, while a week is spent at Holyrood in Edinburgh. Christmas, however, is for Sandringham House.

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The Queen arrives in the middle of the week before Christmas. Family members staying in Sandringham House begin to arrive on Christmas Eve, but not in the way you might imagine – an equerry reaches out to each guest in advance to ensure transportation is organized and share in what order they are to show up. Thus, it’s quite the progress as the morning and afternoon unfold, with each guest shown to their rooms and given the option of having their luggage unpacked. And you’d be advised to take them up on that, for there’s no living out of your suitcase for this particular 48-hour spell. At various points you will be expected to turn up in black tie and “public” (read: professional) attire.

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Nor does one rush into Sandringham to give their mother/grandmother/great-grandmother a hug. The Royal Family doesn’t officially convene until 4 pm in the afternoon in the White Drawing Room where they finish putting decorations on a Christmas tree. Fun fact about Christmas trees: they were incorporated into British culture via the RF and their German roots. Depending on who you ask, the practice was introduced by George III’s wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, in the 18th century or Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, in the 19th. It was definitely not Albert, but it was he who popularized it.

Tea is served and family members – many of whom don’t see one another very often throughout the year – are given an opportunity to mingle and catch up over scones, cake and finger sandwiches.

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Gifts that they have brought are concurrently laid out on a long trestle table in the Red Drawing Room in specific spots marked for each family member. The children, who are mostly kept in the nursery for the festivities and meals, are permitted to join the adults for presents opening. And the gifts themselves, rather famously, are jokey and inexpensive. The late Princess of Wales made the mistake at her first Sandringham Christmas of providing “nice” gifts, including an expensive Hermes scarf for the Queen – an anecdote noticeable enough that it’s been repeated countless times since for being a bit of a faux-pas and such a perfect example of “normal” intersecting with “royal.”

FWIW, Kate brought her homemade chutney from one of her grandmother’s recipes, as disclosed years later in the documentary filmed in honor of the Queen’s 90th birthday.

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But to give proper context for the tenor of the occasion, Prince Harry is reported to have once given his grandmother a shower cap with the words, “Ain’t Life a Bitch,” written on it. I have no idea if that’s true, but on some level it feels just blasphemous enough to almost definitely be true. And lest we think Kate doesn’t have a healthy sense of humor, one year she apparently gave Harry a “grow your own girlfriend” kit.

The last item on the agenda, then, is a black tie dinner served for the adults in the dining room. Guests not staying in the House are then able to leave, while guests staying are free to retire or spend their time as they please. Having moved to the drawing room, the family can socialize together until 10 pm when the Queen leads the ladies in retiring while Philip serves brandy to the men. Progressive stuff.

Breakfast on Christmas Day is served for men in the dining room, while women take it in their rooms. It is reportedly light since there is a larger luncheon served just a few hours later, but in the interim the Royal Family embarks on a walk from the House to the nearby church, St Mary Magdalene. It is from this trek that we, the public, get our Christmas photos of the family. Often times they will pause to greet gathered well-wishers, accept flowers, etc.

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When they return to the House from the service they sit down to a proper meal at 1 pm, but not before everyone has a celebratory drink (mostly champagne). This is one of the most elaborate meals of the holiday and is centered around a roasted turkey, but includes a pudding and a port and cheese course. Crackers, too, are on the table for family members to open, full of gifts and written jokes. For those of you unfamiliar, here you go. And just to help you picture it, everyone except the Queen is wearing a paper crown.

From there, the family convenes to watch the Queen’s televised Christmas address at 3 pm and then is served tea at 4 pm with cakes, scones and sandwiches.

After a few hours off to rest, a formal dinner full of game meat, ham, potatoes and greens are served at 8 pm and then it’s off to after dinner drinks, games and a movie.

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On Boxing Day an early breakfast is served and interested guests take part in a pheasant hunt organized by Philip. Men shoot and women collect the birds, while those who don’t hunt or wish to participate are welcome to remain at the house. Everyone convenes at a small cottage on the estate in the early afternoon when the hunt is over for a mid-day meal.

And that’s a wrap – over the course of the rest of the afternoon guests pack up and return home.

The Queen stays at Sandringham through Accession Day (February 6), which she usually chooses to mark privately out of respect for her father’s memory. The Christmas decorations, per her request, stay up until she leaves.

So, the way that all reads to me (and perhaps to others) are two days jam-packed full of food, basically. And it does feel strange to have the children separated so much from all the festivities, but if you think about it, that tends to be what happens in a house full of family anyway. The children are running around and playing while the adults are mingling, so it’s more a formalization of the organic.

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William and Kate have been established at Anmer Hall, close to Sandringham House, since 2014, so they have a bit more flexibility. On Christmas Day, they can choose to join the family after breakfast, but before they walk to church. If they wish, they are able to pop back to their house in-between luncheon and dinner since some family members opt out of watching the Queen’s Christmas address. And since Kate (generally) doesn’t shoot, she is able to have a quiet morning on Boxing Day before joining the family for a mid-day meal. Should Harry and Meghan join the Cambridges, then Meghan will have a few pockets of respite to decompress as she wishes to.

In the meantime, Meghan was apparently a hit at the Buckingham Palace luncheon last week with the rest of the RF she hadn’t already met. Hopefully that eases any nerves before she goes into what will be the cornerstone of the holidays from now on 🙂

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