Spend Christmas with the Queen in a New Special Edition of PEOPLE
From plum pudding to gag gifts to Her Majesty's speech—get an inside look at the British royal family's holiday traditions
The coming holiday season, when people turn to the comfort of tradition, is going to look different this year. That goes for families around the world, including Britain's royals, who are particularly devoted to keeping their annual customs—but also ready to adapt.
Carole Middleton, the grandmother to Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis, has already shared plans for virtual tree-trimming, in deference to pandemic travel restrictions. “We may not be able to get together but, after a year like 2020, we need to remember what’s really important this Christmas," Kate Middleton's mom, who is also grandmother to her daughter Pippa's son, Arthur, 2, wrote in an Instagram post for her Party Pieces company.
For Queen Elizabeth, the holidays are a time of public and private rituals that are both cozily familiar (the family sends out cards with photos of the kids) and reliably grand (Windsor Castle's seasonal decor takes 11 months to plan). Now in a new special edition, Christmas with The Queen: A Royal Family Holiday Album,
PEOPLE brings readers inside the Windsors' celebrations: from decorating a tree, first popularized by Queen Victoria, to newer customs, such as exchanging gag gifts. (On her first Christmas after marrying Prince Harry, Meghan Markle reportedly gave brother-in-law William a spoon engraved with the words "Cereal Killer.") The photo-filled issue looks back at the traditional Christmas plays Elizabeth performed as a teen during the war; how Princess Diana made the holiday special for her boys, and how, now that they are grown, William and Harry are doing the same for their children. Also inside: We've solved the mystery of why there are no plums in plum pudding—and share a former palace chef's recipe for the beloved English dessert.
The Windsors routinely gather at Sandringham, their 20,000-acre rural estate in Norfolk. There, Queen Elizabeth broadcasts her Christmas message, as she has done since 1952, picking up a tradition started by her grandfather, George V. In the televised address she often encourages charity, discusses events from the past year and, on a lighter note, gives updates on family milestones—she and Prince Philip have welcomed eight great-grandchildren in the past decade.
Then there are family celebrations. There’s gift-giving at tea on Christmas Eve—a German practice that Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced in the mid-19th century. Christmas Eve dinner is black-tie, with the women in gowns. Former rugby player Mike Tindall, who is married to Princess Anne’s daughter Zara, once joked, “I’ve never had to take as many outfits anywhere.”
On the morning of Dec. 25, the family makes the walk from Sandringham House to 11 a.m. services at St. Mary Magdalene Church, greeting the throngs of well-wishers lining their path. That well-attended event won't be the same this year. But the family's evening entertainment could still work—they usually play parlor and board games, often charades, though the Queen is said to prefer Scrabble. And if they have to recreate the games on a video call, that's an option—the monarch began using the technology earlier this year.
There is a sameness to the royal Christmas routine, though it’s not immune to change. In 2017, for instance, the Queen relaxed an unwritten rule forbidding unwed romantic partners from celebrating with the family, welcoming Harry’s then-fiancée, Meghan Markle, to Sandringham. Still, there is something undeniably reassuring about all those time-honored royal Christmas traditions the Queen and her relatives enact year after year. Like the royal family itself, they have endured as rare constants in the most uncertain times.
PEOPLE's new special edition, Christmas with The Queen: A Royal Family Holiday Album is available now on Amazon and wherever magazines are sold.