What It's Really Like Being A British Royal During The Holidays

Every family that celebrates Christmas (or any holiday for that matter) has its own traditions, favorite foods, and unspoken rules that baffle outsiders. And the British royal family is no different in that respect, although some of the things they get up to on Christmas Day are very different to your average British Christmas. For example, hundreds of people probably don't line up for hours in the cold to watch you walk into church, and you probably don't have to pack seven outfits for two days. 

As well as being the most famous family in the world, the royals are also the most mysterious. Which is why picturing them decorating a tree, gorging on turkey, and bickering over party games is oddly fascinating. This is a peek into what it's really like being a British royal during the holidays — it might just make you grateful for your own family's traditions.

A royal Christmas starts with Christmas lunch

Even the royal family struggles to accommodate the entire extended brood in one place at Christmas. Queen Elizabeth has four children, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, three surviving first cousins on her father's side, and several maternal cousins (her mother had nine siblings). To make sure everyone feels included, she hosts a Christmas lunch at Buckingham Palace a few days before departing to the Sandringham Estate.

According to Vogue, between 40 and 50 people attend the lunch, including members of the queen's extended family and some of the people who will later spend Christmas with her. They're all served a full turkey dinner.

Even though the lunch is not the main event of the royal family's Christmas season, an invitation is a signal that you've made it with the inner circle. The duchess of Cambridge never received an invite when she was still just Catherine Middleton, even though she and Prince William dated for four years before getting engaged. Now, their children Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis attend, although Mike Tindall (a former rugby player who is married to Princess Anne's daughter Zara) told a podcast that the kids eat at their own table, in a separate room. He described the event as, "lovely, really good."

The royal family Christmas takes place at Sandringham House

The royal family moved their Christmas celebrations from Windsor Castle to Sandringham House in 1988. A week before Christmas, the queen and Prince Philip commandeer a carriage of a regular train to travel to the house in Norfolk. The other guests arrive on Christmas Eve, in order of rank, with the least important family members arriving first. But everyone had better be present by 5 p.m. for tea, ahead of Prince Philip's evening drinks and a formal six-course dinner.

The house is on the 7,000-acre Sandringham Estate, which is owned by the royal family and accommodates multiple farms and homes. Princess Diana was born in a house her family rented on the estate. According to Vanity Fair, Queen Victoria purchased the land in 1862 for her son, the future King Edward VII, for £220,000 (about £27 million or $36 million today).

Only official members of the royal family are allowed to stay at Sandringham House over Christmas. In 2017, the queen uncharacteristically bent her own rules by inviting Meghan Markle, later the duchess of Sussex, to the family's Christmas, even though she and Harry were engaged rather than married at the time. But the couple had to stay with his brother and sister-in-law, Prince William and the duchess of Cambridge, at their ten-bedroom property Anmer House, which is also on the estate and serves as overflow for 30-room Sandringham.

The royal family decorates a Christmas tree

Not only was the British royal family the first in the nation to have a Christmas tree, they made the German tradition popular among lowly commoners too.

Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, came from the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in Germany, and she brought to Britain the long-standing German tradition of indoor evergreen trees decorated with candles. (Pretty but bad for fire safety.) It supposedly started with church reformer Martin Luther, who wanted to recreate the experience of walking through a starlit forest.

After Queen Charlotte, Queen Victoria's German husband, Prince Albert, continued the tradition. According to the BBC, in 1848, the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family decorating a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, which prompted people around the country to adopt the idea.

The current royals continue this family legacy. Every year, staff at the royal residences decorate Christmas trees, including three in the Marble Hall of Buckingham Palace, which are decorated with ornaments shaped like crowns and carriages, Vogue reports. The staff set up the tree at Sandringham too, but the final decorations are added by the royal children on Christmas Eve. In 2015, the queen noted in her speech, "One of the joys of living a long life is watching one's children, then grandchildren, then great-grandchildren, help decorate the Christmas tree." But apparently, she still sneakily judges their efforts to make sure the tree meets her high standards.

Here's what to buy a royal

What do you buy for people who have access to the finest material goods in the world? Something useful or preferably funny and nothing too extravagant. For example, Harry once bought his grandmother — yes, the queen — a showercap that said "Ain't Life a B****", and in 2011 — pre-Meghan Markle — the duchess of Cambridge gave him a novelty Grow Your Own Girlfriend kit. (And a pair of Gucci loafers — so much for not being extravagant.)

On the more thoughtful side, for her first Christmas at Sandringham, the duchess made the queen a jar of chutney using her grandmother's recipe, which the queen had served on Christmas Day. Markle went for humor for her first royal Christmas – according to Business Insider, she gave the queen a singing hamster.

Unfortunately, no one informed Princess Diana that gifts were supposed to be jokey. In 1981, she bought expensive cashmere jumpers and mohair scarves for everyone at her first Sandringham Christmas, only for Princess Anne to give her a toilet roll holder in return.

The royals also break with traditional British Christmas present-giving in another way. In honor of their German roots, they exchange gifts on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day. The gifts are laid out on tables and opened at 6 p.m., after tea at 5 p.m., with Prince Philip deciding when everyone gets to rip into theirs.

What you eat for Christmas breakfast depends on your gender

Just like most families, many of the royal family's Christmas celebrations involve eating enormous amounts of food. But what you get for breakfast on Christmas Day depends not on your appetite but on your gender. According to the Independent, on Christmas morning, the male members of the family meet downstairs for a classic full English breakfast, including eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, and kippers, served buffet-style. The royals apparently call this particular breakfast "mucking in."

Meanwhile, the women in the family are served a much more sedate meal of toast, fruit, and coffee in their own rooms. This is closer to the queen's daily breakfast of Earl Grey tea, biscuits, and cereal served from Tupperware. According to the Telegraph, her preferred brand is Special K. At Christmas, she also likes to indulge in her favorite breakfast — scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and a grating of fresh truffle, something she sees as too extravagant for everyday meals.

This arrangement sounds very unfair for hungry royal women. The only consolation is that with a six-course meal on Christmas Eve and multiple big meals on Christmas Day, it might ultimately be the better option for avoiding stomach ache — and you'll have a better chance of staying awake in church.

The royal family attends church at least once on Christmas Day

Possibly the most famous royal Christmas tradition is the family's visit to the St. Mary Magdalene Church for the 11 a.m. service. The church was built in the 16th century and is on the Sandringham Estate. The queen often also attends an earlier service by herself or with other members of the family.

This is the only time the public sees the family on Christmas Day — apart from the queen's pre-recorded speech — and people travel for miles and line up for hours for the chance to get a glimpse and perhaps even hand them a present.

The numb toes and boring wait might earn you more than an anecdote. In 2017, Karen Anvil made the trek with her daughter specifically to see Meghan Markle, who had just got engaged to Harry. They arrived at 8:15 a.m., and at 10:55 a.m. she took a photo of the duke and duchess of Cambridge walking next to Harry and Markle. It went viral, and a professional photographer waiting at the church put her in touch with his agent. News outlets around the world bought the photo, and according to the BBC, it still makes Anvil £600 to £6,000 ($800 to $8,000) a month, which she's using to put her daughter through nursing school.

The royals eat a traditional — large — Christmas dinner

The Christmas dinner the royal family sits down to may be surprisingly similar to your own. Except that it's served to them by staff and it involves lobster.

As the Independent reports, at 1 p.m. on Christmas Day, the royal family kicks off their meal with a shrimp or lobster salad, followed by roast turkey with sides, including parsnips, carrots, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and Brussels sprouts. Dessert is, naturally, Christmas pudding (no word on if they set it on fire per tradition) served with brandy butter.

Another possible difference — once the queen has finished eating, everyone else has to stop too. She tries to match the pace of the slowest person at the table, so everyone can have their fill. To make sure, before and after Christmas dinner, everyone is weighed on antique scales (no, really).

If they are still hungry, they only have to wait a few hours. Like everyone else on Christmas Day, the royal family usually finds that they actually can manage a bit more food later in the evening. Unlike everyone else, they don't have to make their own turkey sandwiches. Instead, they are served a buffet of cold meats and 15 to 20 other dishes, according to Good Housekeeping. And in case you were wondering, the queen has a favorite Christmas treat — mint chocolate.

The royals get a kick out of personalized Christmas crackers

Like many Brits, the royal family likes to follow their Christmas dinner with a series of gentle explosives. They pull Christmas crackers — one person takes hold of each end and both pull, there's a crack caused by a little bit of explosive, and whoever gets the biggest end wins a small gift, such as a piece of paper with a terrible joke, and a paper crown.

Unsurprisingly, the royal family's crackers are somewhat fancier than everyone else's. They've been sourcing their crackers from Tom Smith, the company that invented crackers in 1860, according to the BBC. Tom Smith was granted its first royal warrant in 1906. Just like sports teams have official providers of coffee, popcorn or hot dogs, a royal warrant just means the company officially supplies the royals with goods.

The company still makes specially designed crackers for the royal family's Christmas. Its website claims that the design and contents are "a closely guarded secret," but a former employee told the Express that gifts include "pill boxes, onyx eggs, key rings, and silk scarves." In addition to custom gifts, the paper crowns are specially designed. They always feature the royal coat of arms, but the pattern is top secret. And yes, apparently the queen enjoys wearing hers!

There are a lot of costume changes

If your only outfit change on Christmas Day involves putting on stretchy pants after your third helping of turkey, spare a thought for those attending the royal family's celebrations. Over the 48 hours of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the family and their guests change clothes approximately five to seven times (and never into sweatpants).

The reason for this is that the royals don't just dress for dinner, they have a specific outfit for every single activity. Arrival at Sandringham House on Christmas Eve is followed by afternoon tea, followed by a black tie formal dinner. The royals will dress for breakfast, change for church, redress for lunch, change for the afternoon of Christmas Day, and then dress again for the buffet dinner.

And you can't just choose any old outfit. As Vanity Fair reports, the female members of the family, female guests, and ladies-in-waiting have to color coordinate their looks with what the queen is wearing. The queen's official dresser, Angela Kelly, explained that she and the queen plan out what the monarch wants to wear at Christmas weeks in advance and let everyone else know so they can pack clothes that complement her.

The staff gets presents too

Christmas is about giving as well as receiving, even when you're the queen. The royal family's official website says that the queen and Prince Philip send out about 750 cards, which Tatler claims are signed by hand over several months. The recipients include family, friends, Commonwealth leaders, and members of the Royal Household, i.e. the staff.

The queen also personally hands out presents to some of her staff at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. In 2008, the Telegraph reported that everyone received silver-plated coasters. Following a tradition passed down by her grandfather George V and father George VI, she also hands out around 1,500 Christmas puddings to staff, each with a greeting card from herself and Prince Philip.

Of course, the queen isn't hand-making 1,500 puddings — but she can wield a wooden spoon when the occasion calls for it. In 2019, she joined Prince Charles, Prince William, and Prince George to mix Christmas puddings on behalf of the Royal Legion, a charity supporting the British Armed Forces and military veterans.

Being stuck serving the royal family on Christmas Day might not sound very relaxing, but apparently it's not all bad. Darren Grady, the royals' former chef, told the BBC that he worked every other Christmas for two weeks, from December 22 into the New Year, but the staff was supplied with plenty of food, chocolate, drinks, and turkey.

The monarch gives a televised speech

In 1932, George V (Queen Elizabeth's grandfather) created a royal tradition when he gave a Christmas Day speech to the country over the radio. Exactly two decades later, the BBC reported on the queen's first Christmas broadcast following the death of her father, George VI.

The annual speech is often referred to as the Queen's Christmas Message or Christmas Speech, but according to the BBC, its formal name is Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech. The queen writes the message herself, with help from her advisors. As is the way with the royal family, the content revolves around polite but vague messages of unity and good wishes for the coming year. For example, her diplomatic take on the Brexit divisiveness of 2019 was, "Even with the most deeply held differences, treating the other person with respect and as a fellow human being is always a good first step towards greater understanding."

In 1957, the queen gave the first televised Christmas Speech, filmed in the Long Library in Sandringham House. Since 1960, the speech has been pre-recorded. However, the royal family still gathers to watch it at 3 p.m. — it is the only TV they watch on Christmas Day, and even royals get a kick out of seeing someone they know on screen.

The royals love charades

Despite epitomizing the British stiff upper lip in public, in private, the royal family has a sense of fun. At least some of the time.

Over their Christmas break, they like to unwind with games. Harry and Prince William have been known to join in with a Christmas Eve football (i.e. soccer) match that includes the staff, guests, and the villagers from the Sandringham Estate. According to the Telegraph, the brothers usually play on opposite teams — traditionally staff versus villagers — but teamed up in 2015. However they haven't played recently.

According to a former royal employee, the family's all-time favorite game is charades. For fans of The Crown, there's no word on whether they really play wordy drinking game Ibble Dibble, but it is a real game. The one board game they absolutely will not be spending four tense hours playing come Christmas Day is Monopoly. In 2008, the Telegraph reported that Prince Andrew had revealed that the game is banned in the family, explaining "It gets too vicious."

The royal family rounds out Christmas with a hunt

On Boxing Day (that's British for "the day after Christmas"), members of the royal family take part in one of their favorite activities — shooting unsuspecting wildlife so the carcasses can be taxidermied and hung from the walls or eaten. In this case, their targets are mostly pheasants. There's even a Big Game Museum on Sandringham Estate that showcases their prize kills. Former royal bodyguard Ken Wharfe explained to People magazine that Sandringham is "a paradise" for shooting because it's so private. Prince William used to hold shooting parties at a farm on the estate while he was a college student.

According to Harper's Bazaar, the male family members usually go on the Christmas hunt after another big breakfast, with the women meeting them later for a large Boxing Day lunch. In 2018, several news outlets claimed that animal rights advocate Meghan Markle wanted to ban Harry from hunting, but the palace has refuted these allegations. Meanwhile, the duke and duchess of Cambridge are making sure the activity is passed down to the next generation. People reports that they first took Prince George hunting in 2018, when he would have been around five years old.