How to celebrate Christmas like the Queen of England

11 Christmas traditions of Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family. Some of these might be more down to earth than you think!

Queen Elizabeth II during her Christmas Day message at Combermere Barracks in Windsor in 2003. ROTA | Camera Press | Redux

If you’ve ever wondered how the royal family spends their Christmas together then you might be in for a little surprise—apart from the location, the servants, private church service, and curtsying—it’s oddly similar to your normal family Christmas. The Queen, Will, Kate, Harry and the rest of the royals know Christmas as a time full of tradition, joy, spiritual reflection, and little family rituals.

Christmas cards

As you might imagine, the Queen has quite a few Christmas cards to write. So to avoid late minute scrawled messages, and hand cramp, Her Majesty gets her cards and pen out in August, while in Balmoral, Scotland enjoying a little vacation. The 90-year-old will send approximately 800 cards, signed differently depending on how well you know her: “Elizabeth R” (The “R” is short for “regina,” a Latin word for queen) to heads of state, just “Elizabeth” to friends, and our favorite, “Lilibet” to her cousins.

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But what we really appreciate about the Queen is that she also takes the time to read the cards she receives. A wonderful example comes from sender Andrew Simes whose grandfather, Albert Simes, sent a holiday card to the Queen every year without fail. When Albert Simes passed away at the age of 102, his grandson took up the family tradition. But what is truly remarkable about this story is that the change of signature on the annual card didn’t go unnoticed. In 2012, Andrew Simes received a letter from Her Majesty herself saying: “When I received a letter from a different Simes this Christmas, I instructed my office to research your grandfather’s whereabouts. Therefore it is with much sadness, I have learned of his passing and extend my condolences to you and your family.” Not only does this illustrate the Queen’s empathy and sharp observational skills, it shows that cards do make an impact, no matter how tempting those quick general Facebook messages are—sending personal good wishes to each other is a wonderful start to a new year.

The venue

Even though she has a few palaces and castles to choose from, the Queen always goes to her country estate, Sandringham House, a more informal home in Norfolk, just over 100 miles from London. It’s actually on these grounds that Will and Kate have their country property, Amner Hall, which was a gift from the Queen. To get to her family Christmas a couple of days in advance to get organized, you could be right in thinking Elizabeth might take a private helicopter or use her very own specially commissioned royal train. But no, the Queen avoids that pesky holiday traffic by hopping on a regular train with her staff—OK she commandeers a whole carriage but still, what better way of putting her faith in public transport than by using it herself!

Kick off

The royals kick off their Christmas festivities quite literally, heading to the “pitch” (that’s British for soccer field) to engage in a recent family tradition: a soccer game between Prince William, Prince Harry and workers from the Sandringham Estate. We’re not quite sure how competitive this really gets but last year, the princes played on the same side (perhaps avoiding any sibling rivalry?), and went on to win 4-1. Christmas provides a great opportunity for families to partake in sporting competitions with each other, but try to avoid injuries and last minute dashes to the ER.

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Family arrives

Once the Queen has made sure the house us in order with a little help from her staff, the family begin to arrive on Christmas Eve. Because of how large the royal family has become, the Queen celebrates Christmas with only direct members of the family, with little room for the Queen’s nephews and nieces. Now you might think a huge house like Sandringham could welcome an endless number of family members, however, the bedrooms are described as “pokey” and when numbers exceed 24, servant quarters must be taken over to accommodate. Wouldn’t we all love to have that royal solution to the familiar holiday problem of having more heads than beds in the house! But isn’t that the fun of Christmas?

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Once everybody has settled in, the afternoon tea begins, made up of the family’s favorite penny-sized sandwiches and scones. Meanwhile, the children of the family finish decorating the Christmas tree—we can just imagine if little Prince George is allowed to add some of his kindergarten creations to the elegant conifer!

The presents

Presents are opened on Christmas Eve by the royals. But, despite what you might think, the gifts aren’t elaborate. Just think: even a necklace from Tiffany & Co. would be just a drop in a pearl-filled ocean when it comes to royal jewels! So instead, the family opts to have a little fun with their presents. Each member of the family offers something silly; we’re sure Prince Harry is leading the way in this department. (Although rumor has it Duchess Kate once bought a then single Harry a ‘grow your own girlfriend’!)

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Still, in true royal fashion, the token gifts are beautifully wrapped and laid out in the Red Drawing Room. We love the way the focus is on thinking about each other in a thoughtful (and fun) way—isn’t that the essence of present-giving?

Keeping with tradition

As is typical in Europe—although not England—the family sit down to a formal dinner on Christmas Eve. This tradition was brought to the royals by the late Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert from Germany. It is impressive that this tradition continues to last well over 150 years, and what a wonderful example it is of creating new family Christmas traditions when a couple comes together through marriage.

Church

As head of the Church of England the Queen and her family go to two church services on Christmas morning. The family walk to the 16th century Church of St. Mary Magdalene on the estate, while the Queen is driven … she is 90 after all, folks. The first service is a private family occasion, the 11 a.m. service is public, with members of the community attending. After the Mass the Queen takes time to meet with members of the public to wish them a merry Christmas.

Christmas lunch

The Queen is a very traditional woman and offers her family a traditional turkey dinner with all the usual trimmings—no need to complicate things. Although, as is custom, all royals menus are written in French, so if ever you’re invited to dine with the Queen you might need to brush up on your vocabulary … coq au vin anyone? As the staff must be exhausted, they are given the rest of the day off with the family helping themselves to a buffet in the evening.

But after lunch at 3 p.m. the family, along with most of the British nation, sit down to watch a televised pre-recorded speech written by Elizabeth herself. The Queen has broadcast her Christmas message since 1952, which has always been a thoughtful reflection of the tragic, and triumphant world events of the year, society as a whole, with a hopeful look to the future. Her insight and awareness of her role have led Her Majesty to make some very pertinent comments in her Christmas broadcasts:

“Then Christmas comes, and once again we are reminded that people matter, and it is our relationship with one another that is most important.”—Christmas broadcast, 1975

“The Christmas story also draws attention to all those people on the edge of society.”—Christmas broadcast, 2007

“When life seems hard, the courageous do not lie down and accept defeat; instead, they are all the more determined to struggle for a better future.”—Christmas broadcast, 2008

“Everyone is our neighbor, no matter what race, creed, or colour.”—Christmas broadcast, 2004

“I hope that all of us lucky enough to enjoy such gatherings this Christmas will take our time to count our blessings.”—Christmas broadcast, 1990

Family time

The rest of Christmas Day is dedicated to family: with walks in the grounds, puzzles and movie night in the Ball Room—not quite our regular family den, but the activities sound pretty familiar for the average family. We like to imagine the royal family sitting down together for a bit Netflix’s The Crown, or watching a few re-runs of Downton Abbey? Whatever the choice, it is a time for the family to spend some intimate moments together away from the public eye. This need to be together is pretty similar to the rest of us, in that Christmas affords us the occasion to spend time together as a family without our usual everyday distractions.

Au revoir!

Most guests leave on Boxing Day, December 26, to visit other family members. The Queen and her husband Prince Philip continue their stay until the second week of February, with Elizabeth staying on to honor her father, King George VI, who died at Sandringham on February 6, 1952. It is only then that the decorations come down.

Considering the in-laws

Most of us have been there: how do you blend two families at Christmas once you are married? And this too has recently led to changes in a very traditional royal family, whereby once you marry into the family your Christmases are always with the Queen. However, since Duchess Kate has arrived on the scene things are beginning to change. In 2012 William and Kate spent Christmas Day with the Middleton family, and in 2014 they attended church with the royals but hosted lunch for Kate’s family. It’s one of those situations that young couples need to navigate carefully in trying to please everyone, and it is perhaps a diplomatic Queen who has helped guide the couple in reaching a very royal compromise.

It is no surprise that Christmas with the royals is full of tradition. It is the similar traditions and rituals that help bond our own families and deepen our spiritual beliefs at this time. In a world that changes at lightening speed, the Queen is a steady reminder for us all to take a step back, welcome our families into our homes and celebrate all that is good, and remembering that there are those less fortunate in need of our help.

Cerith Gardiner
Cerith Gardiner
Cerith Gardiner was born in London and has been living in Paris for 14 years. She spends her time working as an English consultant, acting as taxi driver to her four children, and wondering if she'll ever be as stylish as the French.

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