The holiday season is a magical time for children, especially those in the royal family. “We were at Sandringham in a big room with a long table covered with white cloth and white name cards,” Prince Harry recalls of a childhood Christmas in his memoir, Spare. “By custom, at the start of the night, each of us located our place, stood before our mound of presents. Then suddenly, everyone began opening at the same time. A free-for-all, with scores of family members talking at once and pulling at bows and tearing at wrapping paper.”
Harry’s fond memories of Christmas are centered around the Sandringham estate in Norfolk. First established in Tudor times, it was purchased in 1863 as a wedding present for the future King Edward VII and his new bride, Queen Alexandra. Relatively cozy by royal standards, the home has been the favorite place for the royal family to gather for the holidays for over a century.
Of course, since they are arguably the most famous family in the world, the Windsors’ holiday traditions have long been a source of public fascination. Presents are opened on Christmas Eve, in the German tradition. The modern royal family give each other gag gifts (the late Queen Elizabeth II loved her Big Mouth Billy Bass), which have reportedly included a “grow-you-own-girlfriend” kit from Kate Middleton to Prince Harry, and an “Ain’t Life a Bitch” shower cap presented to Queen Elizabeth II from Prince Harry.
On Christmas morning, the family walks to services at St. Mary Magdalene Church on the grounds at Sandringham. There, they greet well-wishers and the media. Then, it’s back to Sandringham for the family’s elaborate Christmas dinner. At 3 p.m., the family gathers around the television to watch the monarch’s prerecorded Christmas address.
But royal Christmases were not always so calm. On Christmas Day in 1066, the first Norman monarch, William the Conqueror, was crowned in Westminster Abbey. The service ended in chaos when a group of confused king’s guards outside the abbey set fire to numerous nearby houses.
For early British monarchs, the 12 days of Christmas, far from being a solemn religious event, were a raucous affair. The days of revelry were overseen by an appointed courtier known as the “Lord of Misrule,” who organized the numerous feasts, pageants, theatricals, and balls celebrated by the court. Exotic meats, including peacocks which were “roasted, gilded, and served in their own plumage,” were served, and wine was plentiful.
According to Hugh Douglas, author of the delightful A Right Royal Christmas: An Anthology, the days leading up to the Twelfth Night (January 5 or 6) were marked by vice and role reversal. Gambling, often shunned, was allowed and courtiers were allowed to actually beat the king (for a certain amount of time).
“An announcement was made ‘His Majesty is out,’ and at this signal, the king set aside ceremony and played as an equal with his companions,” Douglas writes. “When he won enough, or lost too much, he would give the signal for a second announcement, ‘His Majesty is at home’ on which he and his courtiers resumed their roles and it became less diplomatic to go on winning against him.”