Novelty gifts, charades and pre-Christmas lunches: just like every other family, the royals have some cracking Christmas traditions. Unlike other families, however, the likes of Wills and Kate and Prince Harry are accustomed to spending the holiday season in palaces and castles across Britain, and have set Christmas trends that have spread worldwide.
Celebration at Sandringham
Every year The Queen hosts Christmas for her children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren at Sandringham, her country retreat. So that’s just a ‘small’ crowd of around 25 guests! The family arrive on Christmas Eve, in order of importance with Prince Charles – the most important as heir to the throne – arriving last.
Christmas Day itself is a more formal day, involving up to seven costume changes for church, meals and dog walking. So Christmas Eve is the time for fun, with everyone gathering to decorate the tree, play charades (The Queen’s favourite game) and exchange funny novelty gifts. ‘Grow your own girlfriend’ kits, padded loo seats and rubber chickens have all raised a right royal chuckle.
Sandringham house, gardens, church and museum are open when the royals aren't in residence – during March to October each year; the visitor centre and shop are open year-round so you can pick up a souvenir to add a dash of royal flavour to your festivities at home.
Pre-Christmas at Buckingham Palace
What do you do when you can’t fit everyone around the dining table on Christmas Day? Have multiple Christmases of course! The Queen usually has a larger family get-together at Buckingham Palace earlier in December. Up to 50 family members who can’t go to Sandringham gather for a pre-Christmas family lunch.
While you can’t pull up a chair for the royal lunch, you can join one of the festive guided tours of the State Rooms – a special treat as they’re usually only open in summer. And don’t miss the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. There’s something indescribably festive about the soldiers in bright red tunics, with clouds of breath billowing out from beneath bearskin hats.
True festive spirit at Osborne House
Osborne House was the cherished family holiday home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Victorian royal family spent the weeks leading up to Christmas there and it is where many of the Christmas traditions that Brits still hold dear first began. The couple introduced, or popularised, some of our most familiar Christmas traditions, from gifts and cards to trees.
December is a fantastic time to visit Osborne House. There are trees in every room and tables creaking under the weight of festive fare – it’s almost as if Queen Victoria and her children are still in residence.
Tree traditions at Windsor Castle
Victoria and Albert spent Christmas itself at Windsor Castle, and it was from here that they made the Christmas tree go mainstream. The 1848 Christmas supplement of The Illustrated London News published an engraving of Victoria, Albert and their family gathered around their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. It didn’t take long for households across the country to follow suit.
Until January, Windsor Castle gets all decked out for Christmas as it would have been for the Prince Regent in the early 19th century. A stunning Nordmann Fir tree, decked out with lights and golden decorations, forms a magnificent centrepiece in St George’s Hall.
Piles of presents at Kensington Palace
Queen Victoria adored gifts. Until her reign, simple gifts of fruit and nuts were traditionally exchanged at New Year but, thanks to Victoria, presents became a common part of the Victorian Christmas. Each year, Victoria and Albert selected grand gifts that were beautifully displayed on tables. You can still see some of the gifts on display in Kensington Palace.
Visit Kensington Palace between Christmas and early New Year when the palace is decorated with Victorian-inspired Christmas decorations and filled with the jingles of Victorian Christmas carols.
Turkey on the Hampton Court Palace Christmas menu
King Henry VIII would have been the first royal to have turkey at the table – probably at Hampton Court Palace – as the birds first came to England in the 1520s. Tudor feasts took place on an epic scale, and Christmas was no exception. On the table would have been swan, goose, venison and peacock, with a wild boar’s head at the centre. One Tudor Christmas dish we’re not sorry to say goodbye to is souse – pickled pig’s feet and ears. And we’re probably better off without Tudor Christmas Pie – a pigeon inside a partridge inside a chicken inside a goose inside a turkey! That might explain the alleged weight of Henry VIII in his later years...
Join the jollity at Hampton Court Palace, which gets decked out with Elizabethan decorations, music and dancers for the festive season.