The holidays are upon us and that means lots of time with family and indulging in nostalgia-inducing holiday traditions. The royals are just like any other family in this way—they have their own set of traditions, many of which get carried out behind closed (palace, castle, and estate) doors.
Here are 40 royal family holiday traditions that you probably didn't know about—including a few that might surprise you.
The Queen hosts a pre-Christmas lunch for extended family.
Every year, the Queen throws her annual holiday party (opens in new tab), which is typically attended by as many as 50 members of the extended royal family, including the the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and Prince Louis, Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla, Princess Eugenie and Princess Beatrice, and Zara and Mike Tindall. Both Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton attended (opens in new tab) this party before their respective royal weddings, and it was a good chance for them to get to know the family before they said "I do."
The royals are obsessed with Christmas cards.
The royals never miss a year of Christmas cards and their recipient lists are extensive (more on that in a few slides). Every year, the Queen and Prince Philip send about 750 hand-signed holiday cards (opens in new tab). Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles also send an annual card, as do Prince William and Kate Middleton and, now, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
But royal Christmas cards are actually very low-key.
"There's no stenciling or faxing or anything like that,"—just a cute pic, it seems!—"and the card count runs into hundreds," royal expert Dickie Arbiter explains, according to Yahoo (opens in new tab).
The Queen personally signs every Christmas card she sends.
If you're lucky enough to make it onto the Queen's Christmas card list, know that you'll be in possession of an authentic Queen Elizabeth autograph. The Queen (and, reportedly, Prince Philip as well) personally signs every single Christmas card.
"The Queen signs every Christmas card she sends, as does Prince Philip," Arbiter explains (opens in new tab). "All the staff get a card, then friends get a card. There are people you've got send cards to and people you want to send cards to, but every card is signed by both of them."
The Queen's Christmas card list is extensive.
According to the royal family's website (opens in new tab), "family, friends, and Members of The Royal Household will likely be the recipients of The Royal Christmas Card, but British and Commonwealth Prime Ministers, Governor-General and High Commissions may also be sent one. The Duke of Edinburgh has a further 200 cards sent out at Christmas to different regiments and organizations close to him."
Senior royals are expected to host several holiday engagements.
Life as a working royal doesn't slow down for the holidays. The senior members of the royal family are expected (opens in new tab) to support their favorite charities and causes by throwing Christmas parties.
The Queen gives to local charities for the holidays.
According to the royal family's website (opens in new tab), the Queen donates money to several charities in Windsor each Christmas, as well as giving Christmas trees each year to Westminster Abbey (opens in new tab), St. Paul's Cathedral (opens in new tab), St. Giles' Cathedral (opens in new tab), and the Canongate Kirk (opens in new tab)in Edinburgh. "Churches and schools in the Sandringham area will also receive a tree from Her Majesty," the website says.
The royal family spend Christmas at Sandringham Estate.
The royals congregate at Sandringham House in Norfolk in the country for their Christmas celebration. The royal family has owned the estate since 1862 (opens in new tab) and it's long been their go-to Christmas destination. The Queen gifted Will and Kate a place of their own on the estate, Anmer Hall. After their wedding, Harry and Meghan were also given their own place in Sandringham—York Cottage (opens in new tab).
The Queen hires out an entire train carriage to get there.
Queen Elizabeth travels to her Sandringham Estate ahead of Christmas on a pre-scheduled public train to King's Lynn, but the royal rents out an entire carriage (opens in new tab) on the train for herself, Prince Philip and their immediate staff. The Queen travels out to Sandringham about a week before Christmas to get ready to host the family's annual celebration.
Queen Elizabeth travels to her Sandringham Estate ahead of Christmas on a pre-scheduled public train to King's Lynn, but the royal rents out an entire carriage on the train for herself, Prince Philip and their immediate staff. The Queen travels out to Sandringham about a week before Christmas to get ready to host the family's annual celebration.
Not only is there tradition dictating what day the rest of the royals should arrive at Sandringham, but there's tradition to the order in which they show up too. Apparently, everyone who's invited to the super exclusive festivities is given a specific arrival slot, dictated by their status within the family (opens in new tab). The earlier you arrive, the less important you are. The most junior members show up first and senior members, like Prince Charles, Will, Kate, Harry and Meghan would be among the last to arrive.
Prince Harry and Prince William play an annual Christmas Eve game of soccer.
Every Christmas at Sandringham, Prince Harry and Prince William play in a soccer game with staff at the estate. According to PopSugar (opens in new tab), both princes "wear the socks of their favorite teams (Aston Villa for William and Arsenal for Harry)."
They have two Christmas trees.
According to the Queen's former personal chef, Darren McGrady (opens in new tab), "the Royal Family has a large Christmas tree and a large silver artificial tree in the dining room, which is about 30 years old."
One of their trees is EXTREMELY tall.
According to Women & Home magazine (opens in new tab), the royal family's Sandringham House Christmas tree really towers—it's a 20-feet-tall spruce tree.
And they decorate the tree together.
When the royal family assembles at Sandringham House on Christmas Eve afternoon, the younger members of the fam work together to finish decorating the trees—but not in a gaudy way. "The Queen is not lavish, so the décor is minimal," McGrady told Good Housekeeping (opens in new tab).
The royal tree is always decorated with family heirlooms.
One decoration that always makes it onto the royal Christmas tree: Queen Victoria's glass angels.
“Of course, Queen Victoria’s glass angels take pride of place and are very important to the royal family because of course they’re inherited and traditional," royal author Claudia Joseph says (opens in new tab).
Prince Philip always puts the star atop the tree.
Like many family patriarchs, Prince Philip has the honor of placing the gold star atop the royal family's Christmas tree every year.
"Prince Philip will always put the gold star on the top of the tree, and probably will continue to do so for the rest of his life," Joseph explains (opens in new tab). "He's quite a stalwart and won’t let other people take control."
Royal kids help decorate the tree.
Even though Philip handles star duty every year, Joseph adds that kids have a special role to play in royal holiday decor too. "When any young children come they put their own decorations on," she says (opens in new tab).
The royals love to decorate the same way we all do for the holidays.
In the documentary Inside Sandringham: Holidaying With The Queen, royal commentator Arbiter explains just how the royals decorate for the holidays—and it's surprisingly relatable.
"[The Sandringham estate] is decorated in much the same way as people throughout the United Kingdom decorate their tree," he says. "You’ve got the baubles, the tinsel, the colored lights."
The Queen approves ALL royal Christmas decorations
According to The Sun (opens in new tab), the Queen approves royal decorations at all official royal residences for the holidays.
The Queen puts her Christmas staff through a very...unique test.
According to the documentary Inside Sandringham: Holidaying with the Queen, the Queen has a special (and very unique test) that any staff member who works with the family at Sandringham during the holidays must pass. In the doc, royal recruitment expert, Tracey Waterman, explains (opens in new tab) how she hand picks the best of the best for the Christmas staff.
“The difference between housekeeper in a five-star hotel and in a royal Palace would be attention to detail," Waterman says. "One of the tests I like to do, to see if a candidate has potential eye for detail, is to place a dead fly, either in the fireplace or on the carpet. Once the dead fly is placed, I then bring the candidate into the room. I lead them into the room, quite slowly, just giving them a chance to glance at the room, have a little look at what we’ve got inside the room."
Waterman says she will guide the candidate to the area where she's hidden the dead fly to make sure they have a real chance to spot it. If they do, the next test is how they handle the situation.
“At this point I’d expect them to see the dead fly, and hopefully pick it up, " she says. "It’s a great test, maybe out of 10 people half the candidates will notice the fly. One out of ten will actually bend down and pick it up, that’s the special housekeeper!"
They shop at department stores.
The Queen famously used to do her Christmas shopping at Harrods in London. The iconic store would reportedly stay open after hours (opens in new tab) just for Her Majesty, so she could shop in peace.
Gifts are opened on Christmas Eve.
The royal family follows German tradition and exchange gifts on Christmas Eve. (opens in new tab) Apparently, the gift giving goes down after afternoon tea on Christmas Eve and Prince Philip gets to make the final call (opens in new tab) on when it's time to start opening gifts.
George sneaks his presents early.
Even though the royals already open their Christmas gifts a little earlier than many families, Prince George can't even wait that long. In a 2016 interview, Prince William revealed that George has a habit of sneaking his presents (opens in new tab) away from the tree to open them early—something that both Will and his late mother, Princess Diana, did as well.
The royals famously give each other gag gifts.
Instead of exchanging pricey gifts, the members of the royal family give each other gag gifts instead. One year, Kate reportedly (opens in new tab) gave Harry a "Grow Your Own Girlfriend" kit. Guess he doesn't need that anymore!
And this isn't just a tradition among the younger generation of royals. According to The Sun (opens in new tab), "Prince Charles’s favorite-ever gift is reportedly a white leather toilet seat from Princess Anne, which he found so comfy that it now travels with him on his overseas tours."
The staff are given gifts.
According to the royal family's official website, "all members of The Royal Household will receive Christmas presents from The Queen and Her Majesty will personally hand out presents to some members of The Royal Household at Buckingham Palace (opens in new tab) and at Windsor Castle. Continuing the tradition from her father, King George VI (opens in new tab) and her grandfather, George V—The Queen also gives Christmas puddings to her staff. About 1500 Christmas puddings paid for by The Queen (through the Privy Purse (opens in new tab)) are distributed to staff throughout the Palaces, staff in the Court Post Office and Palace police. Each pudding is accompanied by a greeting card from The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh."
Everyone watches the Queen's Christmas address.
According to McGrady, the entire royal family is required to gather at 3 p.m. on Christmas Day to watch the Queen's annual Christmas address (opens in new tab) together.
The Queen reads corny jokes to everyone.
In the U.K., Christmas crackers have little corny jokes inside and Queen Elizabeth (opens in new tab) reportedly insists on reading the jokes herself. In fact, when the Queen was younger she used to make up her own jokes to tell the family, according to Express.co.uk (opens in new tab).
The royal family always attends church on Christmas morning.
The royal family always attends a Christmas morning service (opens in new tab) at St Mary Magdalene Church. The service is typically 45 minutes.
There's plenty of drinking.
According to McGrady, alcohol is flowing throughout the family's two-day tradition fest. After church on Christmas day, he told The Daily Mail (opens in new tab), "the Queen has a gin and Dubonnet, while Prince Philip has beer. Everyone else will sip a glass of Veuve Clicquot." At Christmas dinner, he says, "the Queen enjoys drinking Gewurztraminer, an aromatic white wine."
Beginning with a Christmas Eve Martini.
The Queen delivers a Christmas Eve toast with a Martini to kick off the holiday festivities, according to the documentary Inside Sandringham: Holidaying With The Queen.
"I think the Queen likes a Martini, other people would rather have champagne," Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine says (opens in new tab). "Prince Philip isn't a great drinker, he always used to drink pale ale."
The royals like their holiday drinks STRONG.
The royals don't just like to have a good drink at the holidays, said drink must be a stiff one.
"They’re not great drinkers, but the drinks are very strong," royal expert, Ingrid Seward reveals (opens in new tab). "So any one that’s a guest would be knocked out by these drinks.”
The Queen honors the head chef with a toast.
The royals' holiday meal involves a traditional turkey and after it's carved, the Queen takes a moment to honor her head chef—also with a drink, of course.
"At the end of carving the turkey, the palace steward brings the chef a glass of whiskey, and Her Majesty raises a toast to the head chef," former royal chef, Darren McGrady reveals (opens in new tab).
Kids aren't allowed at Christmas dinner.
Kids are relegated to the nursery for the big Christmas feast—at least until they're old enough to "conduct themselves in the proper manner at the table," according to McGrady (opens in new tab).
The Christmas meal is black-tie—and very exclusive.
The dining room at Sandringham has limited seating. According to PopSugar (opens in new tab), "Christmas lunch is 24 adults, and children are seated in the nursery." It's a pretty formal occasion, according to the Telegraph (opens in new tab), "with the men wearing black tie suits and the woman wearing gowns, expensive jewelery, and tiaras."
The highlight of the menu is roast turkey, traditionally from local butcher Scoles in Dersingham (opens in new tab), and the royal family's Christmas pudding, which is prepared a year in advance to give it time to mature, apparently.
The Christmas dinner menu is in French.
If you're starting to think that royal Christmases aren't super fancy, don't worry, they are. The Christmas dinner menu, for example, is reportedly (opens in new tab) in French.
The royals don't overeat at Christmas.
"All the Royals are remarkably disciplined with food. Most simply graze," McGrady says (opens in new tab).
Christmas days begins with a buffet.
The royals' restraint in the food department on the holidays is extra impressive considering how they begin Christmas day. Even before they head to church, the royal family reportedly (opens in new tab) enjoys a Christmas buffet.
Christmas dinner goes late.
According to The Sun (opens in new tab), the royals keep the holiday celebrations going late into the evening on Christmas Day. Their Christmas dinner reportedly goes until 10 p.m.
The next day, the men go shooting.
According to McGrady, (opens in new tab) the men are eager to get out of the house the day after Christmas and get up early to go shooting. The women in the royal family, on the other hand, typically stay behind, but join the guys at a cottage on the estate for a hot lunch of beef bourguignon, or venison stew, with mashed potatoes, braised red cabbage and apple pie.
Over all, royal holidays are shockingly normal.
Even though they definitely have some traditions the rest of us can only dream of, insiders insist that, on the whole, the royals have a really similar Christmas to the rest of us.
"We all think it's a terribly formal, but really [the Royal Family] have a wonderful relaxed time at Sandringham like the rest of us," royal writer Richard Kay says (opens in new tab).
Kayleigh Roberts is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years of professional experience. Her byline has appeared in Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, ELLE, Harper’s Bazaar, The Atlantic, Allure, Entertainment Weekly, MTV, Bustle, Refinery29, Girls’ Life Magazine, Just Jared, and Tiger Beat, among other publications. She's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
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