A very regal affair: Here's how the royals celebrate Christmas at Sandringham

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Everything about being a member of a royal family is built around tradition, pomp and ceremony and Christmas is no exception.

For the British royal family, there is usually no discussion about at whose palace or castle they will have Christmas dinner at.

The Queen, The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Cambridge and Prince George, joined forces to prepare special Royal British Legion Christmas puddings at Buckingham Palace in 2019. Photo: Instagram/@theroyalfamily
The Queen, The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Cambridge and Prince George, joined forces to prepare special Royal British Legion Christmas puddings at Buckingham Palace in 2019. Photo: Instagram/@theroyalfamily

Each year, all members of the royal family head to the Queen's winter residence, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, about two-and-a-half hours north of London, to spend the festive season and welcome in the New Year.

However, this year, the Queen has cancelled those plans, with the Monarch deciding to stay in Windsor Castle as Covid-19 wreaks havoc in the UK.

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Sandringham house (19th century), architect Albert Jenkins Humbert (1822-1877), country residence of the British royal family, Sandringham, Norfolk, United Kingdom.
Sandringham House, The Queen's winter residence and where the British royal family spends Christmas. Photo: Getty Images

Train of tradition for little Royal

It's a tradition the Windsors have observed for years and one Queen Elizabeth participated in with her parents and grandparents when she was a child.

Members of the royal family would board the British Royal Train at Kings Cross station and travel to Kings Lynn, Norfolk, a tradition the Queen still honours today.

Princess Elizabeth on 21st December 1929 on the platform at King's Cross station, about to depart with her Royal grandparents for Christmas holidays at Sandringham.  (Photo by Edward G. Malindine/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
The young Princess Elizabeth prepares to depart from Kings Cross Station with her Royal grandparents for Christmas holidays at Sandringham on December, 21, 1929: Photo: Getty Images
The Royal family walks past lines of viewers on Christmas Morning, Sandringham, 1936', 1937. From Coronation Souvenir Book 1937, edited by Gordon Beckles. [Daily Express, London, 1937]. Artist Unknown. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
A Royal Christmas morning at Sandringham in 1936. Photo: Getty Images

Speaking to the Commonwealth

Sandringham also became the venue for the monarch's Christmas Day speech.

King George V celebrated the launch of radio by broadcasting live from the Long Library at Sandringham in 1926.

The Queen kept up the tradition for radio and then television, though she now pre-records it to enjoy the day itself.

The Queen, in a gold lame dress, sits with a book and photos in the Long Library at Sandringham in 1957. On the desk are portraits of Prince Charles and Princess Anne. The Queen is holding the copy of 'Pilgrim's Progress', from which she read a few lines during her message.
The Queen, in a gold lame dress, sits in the Long Library at Sandringham shortly after making the traditional 1957 Christmas Day broadcast to the nation. It was televised for the first time on the 25th anniversary of the first radio message to the Commonwealth by her grandfather, King George V. Photo: Getty Images
The Queen sits near the Christmas tree with photos in the Green Drawing Room at Windsor Castle in 2019.
The 2019 Queen's Speech was filmed in the Green Drawing Room at Windsor Castle. It is broadcast on Christmas Day at 3pm Greenwich Mean Time. Photo: Instagram/@theroyalfamily

Babies trigger break with tradition

There was a period during the 60s when the family spent Christmas at Windsor Castle.

"When Her Majesty's children were small, many Christmases were celebrated at Windsor Castle ... but since 1988, when the castle was being rewired, Royal Christmases returned to Sandringham," the official Royal Family website reveals.

The main photographs we all see of the Royals at Christmas are as they attend St Mary Magdalene Church, however there are many other traditions they observe at Sandringham.

Prince Andrew, Duke of York, Queen Elizabeth II, Diana, Princess of Wales, wearing a red military style coat and a black velvet crowned hat and a Russian style black muff, Anne, Princess Royal, Peter Phillips and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh leave St Mary Magdalene Church after attending the Christmas Day service on December 25, 1985 in Sandringham, United Kingdom.
Princess Diana added glamour to the Christmas day walk to church. She is seen with Prince Andrew, Duke of York, Queen Elizabeth II, Anne, Princess Royal; Peter Phillips and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh attending the Christmas Day service in 1985. Photo: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

Trimming the royal tree

Many Christmas trees are erected at the various royal residences, but the one at Sandingham is left incomplete so the royals can add the finishing touches.

While Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are often credited with introducing the Christmas tree, it was actually Queen Charlotte, the consort of King George III, who brought the tradition from her native Germany, though Queen Victoria and Prince Albert certainly popularised it.

British royals Sarah, Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother (1900-2002), Prince Andrew, Duke of York and Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-1997), Peter Phillips, Zara Phillips, Prince Charles, Anne, Princess Royal, Prince William, and Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon (1930-2002) attend the Christmas Day service at St Mary Magdalene Church on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, 25th December 1988. (Photo by Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images)
Prince William's first official Christmas service at age six in 1988. He can be seen with British royals Sarah, Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, Prince Andrew, Duke of York and Diana, Princess of Wales, Peter Phillips, Zara Phillips, Prince Charles, Anne, Princess Royal; and Princess Margaret. Photo: Getty Images

Gifts, gin and games

On Christmas Eve, the family exchanges their presents, which they lay out on trestle tables and swap after afternoon tea.

According to royal correspondent Phil Dampier: "The adults exchange cheap joke gifts, with Harry once giving the Queen a shower cap with 'Ain’t life a bitch' on it!"

In the evening the family attends a black-tie dinner, where it is said the Queen's favourite cocktail, the Zaza, made of two parts Dubonnet and one part gin, is served.

A more recent tradition is the Christmas Eve football (soccer) match between Sandringham estate staff and members of the nearby village Castle Rising. Much to the delight of villagers, Princes William and Harry would also take part - and could get quite competitive, according to PopSugar.

British royals Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (1900-2002), Peter Phillips, Prince Harry, Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-1997), Prince Andrew, Duke of York, and Sarah, Duchess of York and Prince William attend the Christmas Day service at St Mary Magdalene Church on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, 25th December 1990. (Photo by Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images)
Prince Harry joins the British royals for the Christmas Day service at St Mary Magdalene Church on the Sandringham estate. Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Peter Phillips, Prince Harry, Diana, Princess of Wales, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, and Sarah, Duchess of York and Prince William attend the Christmas Day service on 25th December 1990. Photo: Getty Images

After a hearty breakfast on Christmas morning, the older members of the royal family attend the morning service at St Mary Magdalene, a country church that dates back to the 16th Century.

Britain's Prince Charles (background, L), Princess Diana (C) and their sons, William (R) and Harry, leave the church of St. Mary Magdalen near Sandrigham House 25 December. Diana arrived at Sandringham 24 December for the traditional Christmas Eve present-opening with the royal family. (Color key: green grass). (Photo credit should read POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
William and Harry attend the Christmas day service with their parents Prince Charles and Diana Princess of Wales. Photo: Getty Images

Long tradition of long lunch

A traditional Christmas lunch follows according to the same menu every year.

"[They have] a salad with shrimp or lobster, and a roasted turkey, and all of your traditional side dishes like parsnips, carrots, Brussel sprouts and Christmas pudding with brandy butter for dessert," former royal chef Darren McGrady reveals.

"The royals have their own bespoke crackers, with gold or silver crowns and the Queen loves reading out the corny jokes," according to British tabloid The Express.

"Once they've eaten, everyone sits down and watches the Queen's Christmas speech," McGrady continues. The speech used to be live but now it is often pre-recorded at Windsor, allowing Queen Elizabeth to relax on the day.

"Afterward, they all go their own way before coming together again for afternoon tea and traditional Christmas fruitcake, then they gather again in the evening, where a buffet dinner with 15-20 different items awaits them. It's always a buffet with the chefs at the table carving."

Prince Harry, and Prince William walk to the annual Christmas Day service at Sandringham Church, on December 25 1998 in Sandringham, England.
Prince Harry and Prince William attend the annual Christmas Day service at Sandringham Church in 1998. Photo: Getty Images

Raise a toast to the chef

One unusual tradition of the Christmas evening buffet is that the Queen serves her head chef a drink.

"Right before the Christmas buffet, the senior chef on duty goes into the dining room and carves the rib roast or turkey or ham and once he's done, Her Majesty presents the chef with a glass of whiskey and they toast," McGrady reveals.

"That's the only time the chef goes into the dining room and has a glass of whiskey with the royal family.

"It's one of the chef's favourite traditions."

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall leave the Christmas day service at St Mary Magdelene Church in 2005 with Prince William behind.
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall (with Prince William behind) at the Christmas day service at St Mary Magdelene Church in 2005. Photo: Chris Radburn, Getty Images

Monarch and mimic

Following the buffet dinner, the royals play parlour games, with charades a particular favourite.

"[The Queen] tends to be in bed by midnight, while the younger royals carry on drinking, with Sandringham cider a favourite of William and Harry," according to royal correspondent Phil Dampier.

(L-R) Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Prince Harry walk to church at Sandringham on December 25, 2011 in King's Lynn, England.
Kate's first official Christmas. Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Prince Harry walk to the traditional Christmas Day service at Sandringham in 2011. Photo: Getty Images)
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry walk to the Church of St Mary Magdalene on December 25, 2017 in King's Lynn, England.
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry attend the Christmas service at the Church of St Mary Magdalene in 2017. Photo: Getty Images

Time for a walk

On Boxing Day there is a traditional shoot that in the past Prince Phillip has led.

If the weather is good, the Queen is said to enjoy a walk with her corgis, often in the company of others such as Kate or Prince Edward's wife Sophie.

The Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge, the Duchess of Cambridge, the Duchess of Sussex and the Duke of Sussex arriving to attend the Christmas Day morning church service at St Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham, Norfolk. (Photo by Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images)
The awesome foursome of Princes William and Harry with their wives Kate and Meghan (with Prince Charles in the foreground) before Harry and Meghan withdrew from royal life. Photo: Getty Images
Prince George and Princess Charlotte after attending Christmas service at St Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham, Norfolk.
Prince George and Princess Charlotte attend the Christmas service at St Mary Magdalene Church in 2018. Photo: Getty Images

Poignant Christmas without Philip

Last year the Queen and Prince Philip spent a subdued Christmas in semi-isolation at Windsor Castle due to the COVID pandemic.

This Christmas will be will be the first Her Majesty will spend without her beloved husband by her side.

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