On Christmas Eve, for the first time in more than 100 years, three generations of heirs to the throne will gather in the white drawing room at Sandringham House. This has been a year of firsts for the Royal family – a birth largely ungoverned by protocols, an ever-closer relationship with the Middleton in-laws – and Christmas marks yet another milestone, as Prince George and his parents join the Queen for celebrations.
Navigating Christmas with a five-month-old baby is no mean feat, and three days at the Queen’s Norfolk estate, where guests can expect timetables, room-plans and activities from Christmas Eve through to Boxing Day, will represent one of Kate and William’s biggest challenges so far.
From presents for relatives to attending church, a pheasant shoot and five changes of outfit a day, it will be action-packed; not, perhaps, the relaxation William and Kate might be hoping for after months of sleepless nights. So what, exactly, will Prince George’s first Christmas entail?
Following Wednesday’s lunch at Buckingham Palace, at which 50 royal guests were present, the Queen travelled to Sandringham this week to prepare for her private Christmas. The festivities will start on Tuesday, when William and Kate arrive in their blue Range Rover with George in his baby seat.
Tradition dictates that guests appear on the sweeping drive in order of seniority, so their arrival will follow that of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, with Prince Harry – who returned from his South Pole expedition yesterday – arriving shortly afterwards. Though it had been reported they would be coming from Amner Hall, their new country pile on the estate, William has told friends that renovations won’t be finished until the new year – so he and Kate will be making the two-hour drive from Kensington Palace.
Each year, Her Majesty invites members of her extended family to spend Christmas together. Last year there were 29 guests, including Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, and her nieces and nephews, the Linleys and the Chattos. Neither William nor Harry was present: William spent Christmas 2012 in Bucklebury, where Kate was recovering from severe morning sickness, while Harry was serving in Afghanistan. This year, the guest list numbers 30, though Kate’s parents, Michael and Carole, are understood not to have been invited – despite reports to the contrary.
“I would doubt the story that the Middletons have been invited is true,” says Penny Junor, the royal biographer. Victoria Arbiter, CNN’s royal contributor, agrees – but adds that the omission is “not a slight on the Middleton family. The Queen has included them in more events than any other royal in-laws, and I think she is very fond of them. It’s simply that, for her, Christmas Day is the only day when she gets to be with her family and not on parade.”
Scones and tea are served once the guests have arrived, and presents are laid out on trestle tables in the red drawing room, with labels to show where each should be placed.
As the family who has everything, the royals adhere to the ritual of giving modest, jokey gifts, a tradition Diana, Princess of Wales fell foul of when she bought expensive cashmere jumpers for her in-laws.
One year, Kate reportedly bought a “grow-your-own-girlfriend” kit for Prince Harry, fishing flies for Prince Philip and a silver photo frame for the Queen; while Prince Charles’s favourite gift is said to be a white leather loo seat cover from Princess Anne. Last week, Kate was spotted at Trotters, a Chelsea clothing shop, buying a boy’s navy jumper emblazoned with a Union Flag (style name: “George”) and a grey cotton T-shirt adorned with beefeaters. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they give George a silly babygro, too, saying, 'I’ve got more hair than Daddy’,” says Arbiter. “He definitely won’t be spoilt, but he might get something special from the Queen to mark the occasion.”
Some commentators suggest that George will have made an appearance on his parents’ Christmas card – though this won’t be made public. “The year that they were married it was a picture from their wedding, and last year it was taken on their Asian tour,” says Marcia Moody, author of Kate: A Biography. “This year is sure to be with Prince George. It will probably not be a personal shot, but something we have already seen.”
Once presents have been exchanged, the royals gather for drinks in the hall before a candlelit black-tie dinner at 8pm. The women retire to another room for coffee, while the men drink liqueurs, and everyone reunites for games before the Queen goes to bed around midnight. After enjoying an informal Christmas with the Middletons last year, William is said to be keen to liven up the festivities by bringing board games such as Pictionary and charades, while Harry wants to bring a Wii console. “The Queen’s celebrations have always been rote,” explains Arbiter, “and everyone’s in a spin this year as Kate and William are shaking things up.”
On Christmas Day, following a full English breakfast, the Queen takes Holy Communion privately and accompanies the family to church. She travels by car to St Mary Magdalene, while the rest of the family walk. Crowds of up to 1,000 well-wishers will gather outside, where the sermon is broadcast on loudspeakers, and inside ordinary members of the congregation (who put their names down in the autumn) will join the royal guests.
Royal watchers say it is unlikely that George will be brought to church, so as not to upstage the Queen. “Charles and Diana didn’t take William or Harry to church on Christmas Day when they were babies, but as we have seen, William and Kate don’t always follow tradition,” adds Moody.
Back at the house, a traditional Christmas lunch will be served, with a turkey and vegetables sourced from local farms. At 2.55pm, the television will be brought out of its cabinet and the family will assemble in the saloon to watch the Queen’s speech. Afterwards, Prince Philip will raise a toast, and the day concludes with a bracing walk around the rambling estate, followed by a buffet dinner.
Boxing Day will begin with a kedgeree breakfast, followed by the customary pheasant shoot, during which the Queen picks up the birds. It is after this that the royal party breaks up, with Camilla heading to Wiltshire to spend time with her children and grandchildren, and the younger family members leaving for new-year commitments. Though William may take part in the shoot, Kate is likely to stay at home with George; while Harry’s girlfriend, Cressida Bonas, is said to have accepted an invitation to join them.
After the shoot, it is thought that William and Kate will drive to her parents’ 18-acre estate in Bucklebury, Berkshire, for the rest of the holiday. Others say it may be the Middletons who make the journey to Sandringham. “Michael, Carole, Pippa and James have all had shooting lessons, so they could be invited to join the shoot,” suggests Moody. “The Queen and Prince Philip stay at Sandringham until after February 6, the date her father passed away there. Other family members will move on after Boxing Day, so there would be room for the Middletons to stay with them.”
Ultimately, this Christmas will be about Prince George spending as much time as possible with his great-grandmother. Though William wants to involve his in-laws in the festivities, the three precious days the four generations of the Royal family spend together will take precedence. “William is very close to his grandmother and sees her as his mentor,” says Arbiter. “Above all this Christmas, he will want George to get to know her – and hopefully it will mark the beginning of many long, happy Christmases together.”