A Royal Christmas: Everything you need to know about the Queen’s holiday traditions

By Suzanne Wintrob

This content was adapted from HELLO! Canada's special Christmas issue, A Very Royal Christmas, which is available to purchase at newsstands across the country right now!

If it’s Christmas, Her Majesty is in the house! Sandringham House, that is. The Queen has been making the 180-kilometre trip from Buckingham Palace to her sprawling Norfolk private estate every December since she was a baby and, nine decades later, she still never tires of it.

In fact, royal Yuletides are only getting more magical with each passing year now that she’s the proud Great-Granny of eight little ones, whose excitement during the holiday brings tremendous joy to her heart.

But whether they’re under nine or over 90, the Queen’s family members know that Christmas at Sandringham is the most wonderful time of the year. It’s Her Majesty’s only day off from official duties, giving her the chance to be a “normal” wife and mother. Even at 93, the sprightly monarch presides over every aspect of the holiday, ably assisted by the Sandringham staff and, as they arrive, by her children, grandchildren and their spouses.

“I loved Sandringham,” Darren McGrady, who worked as the Queen’s personal chef for 11 years and prepared many festive meals, tells HELLO!, adding that it was his favourite of the royal residences. “It was a busy house with 100 staff, but it’s so warm and homey, and it’s a place where you can really get into the Christmas spirit.”

As a child, the then-Princess Elizabeth travelled to Sandringham for Christmas by train with her mother, the Queen Mum. Photo: © Edward G. Malindine/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

From decorating the estate leading up to the holiday through the annual Boxing Day pheasant shoot, every royal Christmas moment is steeped in tradition because the Queen likes it that way. It’s a trait she inherited from her parents, who learned it from their parents, and so on. In the 19 th century, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their nine children lived at Windsor Castle during the winter months, so it was natural to spend Christmas there. But the Queen’s father, the Duke of York, who would later become King George VI, preferred to spend the season at Sandringham. Little Princess “Lilibet” and her younger sister, Princess Margaret, returned there year after year with their parents to create new memories.

The then-Princess Elizabeth travels to Sandringham with her family for Christmas in 1937. Photo: © David Savill/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Ascending the throne in 1952 when her father unexpectedly passed away, the new 25-year-old monarch and mother of two (with two more children to follow a decade later) slowly transitioned the festivities back to Windsor Castle. However, castle rewiring in 1988 and a fire in 1992 meant occasional moves to Sandringham, and that’s where the gathering has remained.

The Queen prefers to travel to Sandringham by regular train service – albeit first class! – rather than by car because, as with most things in her life, it's traditional. Photo: © Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

Usually by Dec. 21, the Queen is nestled comfortably at Sandringham (Prince Philip, 98, lives there permanently now, in Wood Farm cottage on the estate), and it’s all royal systems go. Their next of kin arrive in order of seniority over the following few days, with Prince Charles and Camilla being the last to pull into the driveway.

As each guest arrives, they join in the ritual of adding the finishing touches to the six-metre-high Christmas tree, a spruce from the estate. Finally, Philip tops it with a gold star. Then, if there’s time, Prince William and Prince Harry play a game of soccer with the estate workers and villagers. (Harry won’t be there to do that this year, since he, Duchess Meghan and Archie are spending the holidays with Doria Ragland, the Duchess of Sussex’s mother.

The Royal Family enjoying quiet time at Sandringham in 1969. photo: © Central Press Ltd./AFP/Getty Images

At 4 p.m., everyone gathers in the White Drawing Room for tea, home-baked scones and “jam penny” sandwiches cut into circles the size of an old English penny. Dress code is business attire, meaning suits for men and dresses for women. The Master of the Household hands out an itinerary of the Christmas lineup so nobody misses a beat.

Next is gift-giving, a royal Christmas Eve custom introduced by Victoria in a nod to her husband’s German heritage. The wrapped presents are laid out in order of precedence on white linen-covered trestle tables in the Red Drawing Room. Famously, the family who has everything love to give humourous gag gifts.

By now, little tummies are hungry. While the Queen’s modern grandchildren likely feed their children themselves before heading to a formal adult-only dinner, it wasn’t that way when Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, Prince Edwardand their cousins were growing up.

“The children always ate in the nursery until they were old enough to conduct themselves properly at the dining table,” says Darren. “So for the Queen, there was never a case of putting a high chair at the table with a little baby squealing and throwing food. It was Victorian. The children’s place was in the nursery and Nanny would take care of them. It was your modern-day Downton Abbey.”

DINNER IS SERVED

At 8 p.m., the children are tucked into bed for the night and a gong sounds for pre-dinner drinks. The Queen’s cocktail of choice is a gin-and-Dubonnet (known as the “Zaza”) while Charles sips cherry brandy. William and Harry favour local Sandringham cider produced on the estate. With Princess Eugenie’s husband, Jack Brooksbank, having entered the family fold last year, no doubt Casamigos tequila (a brand co-founded by George Clooney) now plays a starring role since Jack serves as the spirit’s U.K. brand ambassador!

On Christmas Eve, after the children are asleep, the adults don their finest attire for a formal candlelit dinner. Everyone dresses to the nines, with men looking sharp in tuxedos and the women exquisite in evening gowns and their finest jewellery and tiaras. Charles and Camilla’s attire in their 2018 Christmas card wouldn't be out of place. Photo: © Victoria Jones - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Soon afterwards, the gang moves into the dining room for a delicious candlelit dinner, with the menu listed in French at each place setting. At 10 p.m., staff serve up coffee and liqueur. The Queen goes to bed at midnight and the others are free to do the same or stay up and chat the night away.

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret delight the crowds at Sandringham outside church in 1936. Photo: © The Print Collector/Getty Images

MORNING GLORY

After a good night’s sleep, everyone is due downstairs by 9 a.m. for a hearty English breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausages, toast and tea. They bundle up in coats, scarves and hats and sets off for St. Mary Magdalene Church, situated on the estate. The Queen travels by car, usually accompanied by one of her female family members, while the others walk there. When the service ends, they step outside and are greeted with bouquets and cheers from the excited crowd.

The late Princess Diana with Prince William outside church at Sandringham in 1990. Photo: © Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

Lunch, which starts at around 1 p.m., comprises lobster or shrimp salad followed by estate-raised turkey with all the trimmings, including different stuffings such as “sage and onion, chestnut – and the traditional sides like roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, parsnips and brussels sprouts,” Darren reveals.

Dessert is a Christmas pudding “made in pudding basins, turned out, decorated in holly, doused in brandy. Then the palace steward would carry it, flaming, into the royal dining room.”

At 3 p.m., the family nestles in front of the television to watch the Queen’s much-anticipated Christmas message. Only then can hey change into something more comfortable so they can get outside for some fresh air and exercise on the grounds of the 8,000-hectare property.

“It’s quite a strange day because normally I’d spend the whole day either in my boxer shorts of my [trackpants],” former rugby champion Mike Tindall has said on his holiday ritual before he married Anne’s daughter, Zara. “But by the time I would have normally gotten up, I’ve been to church twice, which his quite strange for me as I’m not really from a massive church-going background. So yeah, it’s completely different. I’ve never had to take as many outfits anywhere!”

The Queen receives flowers from youngsters outside St. Mary Magdalene Church at Christmas in 2012, her Diamond Jubilee year. Photo: © Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Later, back at the house, they gather again to play games, work on puzzles and perhaps watch a movie or two. When they get the munchies, there’s a buffet of cold meats, Christmas cake and Yule Logs at the ready.

“The buffet was when they brought out the whole spread,” recalls Darren. “When I was there, Harrods would always give them a whole foie gras en croute. They’d have a whole Stilton cheese. We’d take the top off, pitchfork the top and pour port into it. It made this gorgeous spread for the crackers. It was really opulent. There was also a big York ham that was decorated. Then, after carving all of the meat, the Queen would ask the steward to pur the head chef a drink and he’d get a whisky and they’d toast him and say thank you.”

THE MORNING AFTER

Following a satisfying buffet breakfast of kedgeree (a curry mash-up of fish, rice and hard-boiled eggs), the royals once again venture outside to enjoy the weather. Some go horseback riding while others – including Duchess Kate, who has been described as a keen markswoman – join Philip as he leads the annual pheasant shoot. Then they tuck into a satisfying lunch of cold cuts and cheese at Philip’s rustic cottage.

As their Christmas obligations conclude, the Queen’s children and grandchildren are free to depart for home or stick around longer. Some hang out for a few more days to socialize with their grandparents and give the little ones more playtime with their cousins, though William and Kate dash to her family’s house in Berkshire for the Middleton celebrations.

The Queen may open some mail and take a few official calls while Philip likes to paint at his cottage and explore the grounds. The monarch doesn’t return to London until after Feb. 6, the anniversary of her father’s death.

Then Sandringham staff take down the Christmas decorations and it’s back to royal business as usual… until the following December, when they do it all over again.

DID YOU KNOW?

About 1,500 Christmas puddings – at one time, traditionally composed of 13 ingredients symbolizing Jesus and the 12 Apostles – are distributed to staff throughout the palaces as well as those in the Court Post Office and the palace police. The Queen picks up the tab for the puddings, which are accompanied by a greeting card signed by her and her husband.

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