The tradition dates back to the 1950s, when Princess Grace invited underprivileged children to the palace

By Peter Mikelbank
December 18, 2019 02:52 PM

Monaco’s annual children’s Christmas party is unique among royal traditions — and just maybe the best-loved of all.

Ask any of the 600 children wearing white elf bonnets running around the palace salons on Wednesday. Or ask Prince Albert and Princess Charlene, who set the informal mood arriving in the palace courtyard in a colorful geometric-patterned, three-quarter length sweater.

You could even ask the circus acrobats or the troupe of folk dancers. But ask them quickly and loudly —because the rush for presents handed out by members of the royal family (Charlene this year assisted by Prince Albert, who called out children’s names) is a whirlwind.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s “there was no television and practically no movies, definitely no internet or diversions like today, so Princess Grace decided to offer children a day in the palace with snacks,” says one Monégasque who attended parties as a child. For entertainment, the Princess used her Hollywood contacts arranged to have some old Disney cartoons screened.

Princess Charlene and Prince Albert
Prince Albert and Princess Charlene
Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty

In a way, Grace’s legacy was unintentional but the best idea imaginable to build ties between the new Princess and the next generation of Monégasque citizens. It was a small gesture which has become a very big thing. Prince Rainier got behind it, and he, Princess Grace and their children made it into an annual bridge between their family and children from Monaco.

Princess Charlene and Prince Albert
Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty

As the initial invitees were largely underprivileged children, the family thought to add two striking elements: a toy giveaway to every attendee and the opportunity for each child to speak — however briefly — with the ruling prince himself.

In six decades since, the party has acquired a number of additional traditions: tree decorations, live entertainment (like magicians sawing assistants in half or circus clowns), a 600-strong group photo, the historic royal courtyard decorated with giant cartoon statuary (Smurfs this year), the arrival of Santa Claus, special cookies and a legendary cup of hot chocolate.

The key element, however, the direct connection between the palace residents (this year including the Prince’s nephew Louis Ducruet and his sister, Camille Gottlieb) and the principality’s children remains rock solid.

Monaco Christmas party
Eric MATHON /Prince's Palace of Monaco

Not that there haven’t been bumps, Prince Albert tells PEOPLE exclusively.

“Occasionally, you’ll get a child who says, ‘Oh, I’ve already got one of these,’ ” he laughs. “But that mostly happened in Dad’s day.”

To avoid that embarrassment, palace employees now volunteer their time, forming research teams determining a specific “bespoke” gift for each child.

Princess Charlene and Prince Albert
Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty

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“And there are children who don’t say, ‘thank you,’ ” notes Prince Albert, who has been the event’s most constant presence since his own youth and its greatest supporter. “But you have to accept that this is very exciting and could be a very intimidating experience for them. I mean, visiting the palace itself is something and, then seeing Santa and the Princess and getting a gift, it’s something impressive.”