Sandringham House has been the traditonal home for a Royal Family Christmas since the days of her grandfather, George V.
After 60 years on the throne, there are still some things Queen Elizabeth never seems to tire of. Christmas at Sandringham is one of them.
It is family time, and that means upholding the best of its traditions. The Queen has had these embedded in her since youth, and she takes great pains to make Christmas a family-based affair. Of course, it helps to have a big house like Sandringham, which has been a private royal residence for four generations.
The Queen is slightly under the weather as the big day approaches -- she missed church service on Sunday while "getting over the tail end of a cold," said the palace -- but there is always 'the-show-must-go-on' kind of bravado around the whole affair.
Even Prince Philip's hospitalization for emergency heart surgery last year didn't seem to put much a dent in the long-held routines -- which is just the way Philip wanted it.
And the 86-year-old monarch even leaves a little room for twists to the traditions. Her annual Christmas message goes out in 3D for the first time this year (she previewed it with producers at right) and the word from the palace is that she proclaimed the result "absolutely lovely."
Advance extracts of her speech include special mention of the athletes of the London Olympics, who, she said, "gave the rest of us the opportunity to share something of the excitement and drama."
A few of the 'star' royals will be missing this Christmas at Sandringham -- Prince William and Kate will be at the Middleton family home and Prince Harry is in Afghanistan -- but there's plenty more relatives to fill the space.
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. The setting is somewhat grander, but the general ambition remains the same: keep Grandma happy. (Right: the Queen adjusts the hat of one of her daughters-in-law, Sophie, Countess of Wessex, on Christmas Day in 2002)
Here's a look at how Christmas at Sandringham is celebrated, gleaned liberally from outside sources and a blog post we presented last year:
It all begins the week before Christmas, when the Queen vacates Buckingham Palace for what will be a six-week stay at Sandringham House, an hour and a half or so by train 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.
That means a crowd of more than two dozen relatives, including children and spouses.
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.
Before they start arriving -- junior royals first -- a spruce Christmas tree will be selected and cut down from the huge estate, and servants begin decorating it in the White Drawing Room. (Three years ago, disaster struck when the 18-foot tree was toppled after a staff member fell into it.)
As you might imagine, there’s a huge store of old ornaments, dating back to Queen Victoria.
The Queen likes to decorate the tree (as much as an 86-year-old woman can), making sure to take care of the star from George V's days and laying on the tinsel. The younger royals finish off the decorating.
As the guests begin to arrive, they are given a room plan and a timetable by the Master of the Household. The accomodations are bare by royal standards, more country inn-sensible than palace-plush, with rooms kept warm by two-bar electic fire grills. Beds are covered with blankets, not duvets.
Gifts that have been brought are laid out in the Red Drawing Room, sectioned off by name and in order of precedence.
The drawing room at Sandringham, where the royals will gather for the first time.
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 usually retires. No one leaves the gathering before she does.
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. Although photographing royals on the estate is generally not allowed, the rule is relaxed at Christmas (aside from a nasty incident a few years ago where cameras were mistakenly confiscated).
Finally, turkey time -- courtesy of birds raised on the estate -- arrives at 1:15 p.m. The Queen makes the seating plan.
Gobble, gobble and gone. Don’t want to miss the Queen’s annual Christmas TV broadcast at 3 p.m., a tradition that dates to 1932 and George V’s radio broadcasts. The Queen's first broadcast was in 1952, with the first televised one in 1957 (below).
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. Sometime during the day, it's expected that Prince Harry will touch base with the relatives via Skype.
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. Last year, after being in hospital for four days following surgery for a blocked artery, the ever-game duke headed straight for the pheasant outing, though he didn't pick up a gun.
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.
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?