December 21, 2017 05:04 PM

Christmas at the palace!

Monaco’s Prince Albert and Princess Charlene pulled out all the stops for this year’s annual palace Christmas party.

The royal couple was greeted by excited children when they arrived in the palace courtyard on Wednesday to kick off Monaco’s beloved holiday celebration. The sight of Charlene in a cherry red cape and Albert rocking a Santa hat (and Goofy tie!) got even more cheers than Santa himself!

The children “didn’t see him and Charlene at first and then when they did, they just exploded. In contrast, Santa himself didn’t get anywhere near the same reaction,” a party invitee tells PEOPLE.

The royal twins, Prince Jacques and Princess Gabriella, who just celebrated their third birthday, had to miss the festive celebration due to colds, but their royal parents delighted the group of about 500 children, ages, 5 to 12, who attended the celebration.

Princess Charlene and Prince Albert

After greeting their guests and taking in a brief outdoor performance by a local children’s troupe of dancers and posing for photos on the Cour d’Honneur stairwell, the royals moved this year’s party inside to the throne room for a stage magician’s performance. They were then treated to sugar cookies and the palace’s legendary hot chocolate (it tastes like melted chocolate bars with hints of cinnamon!).

Princess Charlene and Prince Albert

Then Albert and Charlene, assisted by Princess Stephanie’s children, Louis Ducruet and Camille Gottlieb, played Santa and personally handed each child a pre-selected gift.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty

Prince Albert “is very attached to this tradition, to this way of celebrating Christmas,” another attendee says. “It’s a lot different way, much less informal, than the way the French, Italians and the Monagasque traditionally celebrate.

“He’s just much more American at this time of year.”

Princess Charlene and Prince Albert

The palace party origins are, in fact, American, dating back to Albert’s mother, Princess Grace, who organized the first event for the region’s underprivileged children.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, “there was no television, practically no movies and definitely no Internet or diversions like today, so Princess Grace decided to offer children a day in the palace, with snacks and she showed some cartoons. It was a small gesture which has become a very big thing,” recalls one palace employee who attended parties as a child.

“Prince Rainier got behind the idea and he and Princess Grace made it into an annual bridge between their family and children from Monaco and surrounding communities.”

That bridge is now the year’s most eagerly awaited invitation and so popular that a second party for the children of palace employees w ill be held on Friday.

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