This Is How the Royal Family Usually Spends Christmas

Black tie dinners, gag gifts, and more.

Queen Elizabeth at Christmas
(Image credit: Getty)

Christmas will look a little different for the Royal Family this year. Like most of us, the royals have had to adjust many of their holiday traditions due to the pandemic. What’s more, this Christmas marks the first festive holiday the Queen will be celebrating since her husband, Prince Philip, passed away in April.

Last week, Queen Elizabeth cancelled the annual pre-Christmas lunch at Windsor Castle that typically involves the entire extended family. Just a few days later, we found out that she also scrapped her usual visit to Sandringham, making this the second year in a row that the Queen hasn’t spent Christmas at her Norfolk estate.

Luckily, Her Majesty won’t be spending the holidays alone. On December 23, Clarence House confirmed that Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla will be joining the Queen at Windsor Castle on Christmas Day. We can also probably expect to see the Queen’s youngest sons, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, join the Windsor festivities.

Kate Middleton and Prince William, however, will spend Christmas in Norfolk with their children and the Middleton family, royal reporter Richard Palmer confirmed on Twitter yesterday.

Plans are clearly still up in the air, but how does Christmas usually go for the royals? The family has their own set of nostalgia-inducing holiday traditions that they usually participate in—even if things might not go exactly according to plan this year. Take a look at some of the fanciest, sweetest, and most surprising Royal Family holiday traditions, below:

Christmas Eve at Sandringham

In a pre-pandemic world, the Queen would always take the train from King’s Cross in London to her countryside estate, Sandringham, a week before Christmas. Once there, the other members of the family file in on Christmas Eve to exchange gifts and have dinner.

Tree trimmings

After the entire crew arrives, the younger members of the family work together to finish decorating the Christmas trees at Sandringham. There are typically two trees to trim: one spruce tree cut down every year, and one silver artificial tree in the dining room. In years past, Prince Philip would always have the honor of placing the gold star atop the spruce tree.

Princess Diana and Prince William at Christmas

(Image credit: Getty)

Gag gift exchanges

Speaking of gifts, the royals have a hilarious rule when it comes to purchasing presents for each other: the cheaper, the better. The family prefers to exchange cheeky gag gifts instead of expensive items; past gifts have including dancing hamsters (from Meghan Markle to the Queen), “grow your own girlfriend” kits (from Kate Middleton to Prince Harry), and leopard-print bath mats (from Princess Diana to Sarah Ferguson).

Black tie dinners

Christmas Eve dinner, on the other hand, is a very formal affair. During the annual meal at Sandringham, guests are expected to wear evening gowns and black tie suits, and the meal itself is a six-course feast with a menu written in French. 

Church services

On the morning of December 25, the Queen wakes up at the crack of dawn to head to St. Mary Magdalene Church at Sandringham. There, she receives Communion privately before getting ready for the rest of her busy Christmas Day.

Huge Christmas lunches

The royals gather for another big meal on Christmas Day, typically consisting of roasted turkey and all the trimmings. The Queen also pays for about 1,500 Christmas puddings to be distributed to staff members throughout the palaces—each accompanied with a hand-signed card.

Official speeches

Back in 1932, King George V delivered a radio-broadcast speech on Christmas Day. This tradition is now in its 89th year—dubbed the Queen’s Christmas Message, Queen Elizabeth pre-records her speech, which is then televised every year at 3 p.m. on various news channels. 

Post-Christmas outings

The day after Christmas, the male members of the family typically get up early to go shooting. The women, meanwhile, stay behind but join the men for a hot lunch of beef bourguignon or venison stew, with mashed potatoes, braised red cabbage, and apple pie.

Caitlin Morton is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, with more than eight years of experience covering travel, pop culture, and fashion. Her byline has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Vogue, Architectural Digest, AFAR, Real Simple, Thrillist, and many more publications.