Queen rules Christmas at Sandringham
The public has their opportunity to say "happy Christmas" to the Royal Family on Christmas morning as they walk from St. Mary Magdalene church to Sandringham House. Above, it's William and Harry with father Prince Charles receiving some gifts along the path in 1998. (AP)
If there’s one royal tradition that the Queen guards most, it might be Christmas at Sandringham.
For about four days, it’s all about family, and the kids, and routines that have been going on for years. Kind of like the Christmases many of us enjoy. True, the setting is somewhat grander, but the general ambition remains the same: keep Grandma happy.
It all begins several days before Christmas, when the Queen vacates Buckingham Palace for what will be a six-week stay at Sandringham House, a 2-1/2 hour drive north of London. For a while she hosted the holiday at Windsor Castle (it can accomodate far more people) but now she tries to keep it simple with immediate family only at the Norfolk estate.
This year, that means a large crowd of more than two dozen relatives, including children and spouses of the Queen's four kids, plus those of her late sister Margaret. The notable rookie additions are Kate Middleton and Mike Tindall, whose respective marriages to William and Zara put thrust them to the inner circle. Pippa Middleton will reportedly widen Kate's comfort zone with a Boxing Day appearance.
Despite its country-estate setting, there’s still plenty of royal duties for the Queen to attend to at Sandringham, which acts as the monarchy's base until February. The first week, however, is all about Christmas and family. This is strictly a private affair, though details emerge over the years, some of them in a book by Phil Dampier, "What’s In The Queen’s Handbag (And Other Royal Secrets)." From that and other sources, we can put together a reasonable diary of the goings-on.
As you might imagine, there’s a huge store of old ornaments, dating back to Queen Victoria. This year, they might even find room for the new William-Kate bauble, a $135 investment (right). William missed last year's gathering because, still being single at the time, he was on duty with his helicopter search and rescue team in Wales.
The Queen likes to decorate the tree (as much as an 85-year-old woman can), making sure to take care of the star from George V's days and laying on the tinsel. (Two years ago, disaster struck when the 18-foot tree was toppled when a staff member fell into it).
As the guests begin to arrive -- and it should be a pretty large gathering this year -- they are given a room plan and a timetable by the Master of the Household. Not good form to miss an event over the next three days ….
It’s tea time (Earl Grey mostly) at 4 p.m. in the drawing room. Sandwiches, scones and muffins are in abundance.
At 6 p.m., it’s time for the gifts, following in the German tradition of unwrapping the bounty the night before Christmas.
All the gifts are laid out on a white linen-covered table with name tags and everyone dives in. Ceremony is dispensed with.
What do royals get each other for Christmas? Well, not as much as you’d think. Most gifts are either practical, or a practical joke.
A few examples:
- The Queen was reportedly delighted to receive a casserole dish, and even more delighted one year to be given one of those singing Big Mouth Billy Bass fish, which supposedly still sits on the grand piano at Balmoral.
- Harry and William went in together on a Blu-Ray player for Grandma Liz.
- Princess Anne gave her brother Charles a padded toilet seat. One year he gave her a doormat.
- Harry once gave the Queen a plastic shower hat emblazoned with: “Ain’t life a bitch!”
- Princess Diana gave Charles some Mickey Mouse socks.
- Prince Philip has a penchant for novelty items like unusual can openers. He has also received a whoopee cushion, apparently.
Amply refreshed, everyone scatters to get ready for dinner. This involves yet another change in outfits, since it is regarded as a formal affair: ladies in gowns, gents in black tie.
At 8 p.m., the gong sounds for the gathering of the clan. The Queen always arrives fashionably at 8:15.
“You never let the Queen beat you down for dinner, end of story,” said Sarah Ferguson, recalling her Christmas days as wife to Prince Andrew. “To come in any later would be unimaginably disrespectful.”
There’s Christmas crackers, of course, those festive-wrapped tubes that snap (!) open and to reveal a party hat, horoscopes, jokes and a insanely cheap little plastic toy. The Queen is excused from wearing the paper hat.
Two hours later, dinner is done and on come the post-dinner beverages: coffee, port and brandy.
By midnight, the Queen is in bed.
In this scene from 2000, several generations of royals are seen emerging from the Christmas Day service at St. Mary Magdalene. On the left is Prince Andrew with his daughters Eugenie and Beatrice. The Queen and the Queen Mother, meanwhile, greet some of the local children who offer flowers to the royals. Several hundred people usually line the road near the church to get a close-up view of the royal procession. (AP)
Not sure who does all the filling, but eyes awaken to the sight of stockings at the foot of each family member’s bed, filled with small gifts and fruit.
Bacon, sausage, eggs, toast and tea -– take your pick from the traditional English menu for breakfast. Everyone just has to give themselves plenty of time to make the 11 a.m. Christmas service at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene (right). By tradition, most walk, though the Queen and those with young children are driven.
This is where the public generally gets its best view of the royals. Since this is Kate Middleton’s maiden Christmas voyage with the royals, more than a thousand people are expected. Although photographing royals on the estate is generally not allowed, the rule is generally relaxed at Christmas (aside from a nasty incident a few years ago where cameras were mistakenly confiscated).
Finally, turkey time -– courtesy of a bird raised on the estate -- arrives at 1 p.m.
It never has a chance. Gobble, gobble and gone. Don’t want to miss the Queen’s annual Christmas TV broadcast at 3 p.m. (2010 video below), a tradition that dates to 1932 and George V’s radio broadcasts.
Other than that must-see TV, this is the family’s lazy afternoon, with everyone free to play some games, watch TV, take a stroll, have a nap… just like ordinary turkey-filled folk.
And guess what’s for dinner? Yep … leftovers (with a fresh lobster salad to start).
“The family are not keen on mince pies or Christmas pudding so I could be quite bold with, say, a pina colada mousse with a raspberry coulis,” said former royal chef Graham Newbould.
It’s game night after that, where the doors are closed on the digital world and old stand-bys like charades make a comeback.
After a big breakfast, the annual pheasant shoot is arranged, with Prince Philip traditionally taking the lead. This is usually a male-dominated event, but both Kate and Pippa have been practicing and can handle a gun pretty well.
As for the Queen, every dog has their day and this is the one for monarch’s many corgis, who will undoubtedly be in her company most of the afternoon — along a beach if the weather permits.
The festivities winding down, it's back to regular royal duties on the 27th, most of the royals scattering to their United Kingdom corners, from London to Wales. There are reports that Will and Kate will be joining Charles and Camilla for the New Year at Birkhall in Scotland.
The Queen, meanwhile, hunkers down with Philip at Sandringham for the long January month.
Someone has to clean up the mess the kids left behind, right?