Christmas With the Queen: Surprising Royal Family Holiday Traditions

Have you ever wondered what Christmas with the royals is like? Well, it may not be quite what you expected. They don’t give one another lavish gifts or lounge around Buckingham Palace all day. In fact, the British royal family doesn’t even spend the holiday at their famous London residence. Instead, they travel to their Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, England, on Christmas Eve where they meet Queen Elizabeth II who always arrives a few days prior.

Here are some other traditions the family keeps that may surprise you.

1. They opt for cheap gag gifts

The Queen laughs and looks a little scared as she chats with guests.
They wake up to laughs under the tree. | Giphy

As mentioned, the royals do not exchange expensive gifts, but they do give each other cheap gag gifts.

‘The crazier and the more quirky is what they love,” former royal chef Darren McGrady told People, adding, “It’s not about something really amazing or a Cartier watch.”

The presents are exchanged on Christmas Eve and over the years have included a “Grow Your Own Girlfriend” kit for Harry, courtesy of sister-in-law Kate, and a shower cap from Harry to his grandmother which read, ‘Ain’t life a b**ch.'”

Next: Decorations stay up for how long?!

2. Christmas decorations stay up until mid-February

Queen Elizabeth standing between Christmas trees.
Queen Elizabeth likes her Christmas decorations. | John Stillwell/PA Wire/Getty Images

While many people believe that Christmas decorations should not be left up past the first week of January, the royals actually leave theirs up into February.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip stay at Sandringham after the rest of the family leaves to honor her father, King George VI, who died at the estate on Feb. 6, 1952. While they are there, all of the decorations remain up and are not taken down until the second week of February.

Next: Talk about getting an early start.

3. The queen signs her Christmas cards in the summer

Queen Elizabeth signing papers on a desk.
She gets a head start on some of the prep work. |  Lindsey Parnaby/WPA Pool/Getty Images

With a whopping 800 cards to be mailed, it’s no surprise that the queen gets an early start filling those out … a very early start. Her majesty starts writing out the seasons greetings in the summer — that way, she has them done before the Christmas rush.

Queen Elizabeth also remembers her staffers during the holidays and gives them each a gift. In addition, she has Christmas trees sent from the Sandringham estate to local schools and churches.

Next: You can bring that to dinner.

4. BYO to dinner party

Prince Charles samples Oysters at table.
Everyone can bring a dish to share. | Arthur Edwards/AFP/Getty Images

With many families after someone offers to have a holiday dinner at their house, other relatives ask, “What can I bring?” Well, it’s the same with the royals. Although they have chefs cooking their meal for them, guests are still welcome to bring something if they choose.

McGrady recounted what Prince Charles would always bring, explaining that “He would always come with a hamper full of organic food. He liked his poached plums from Highgrove. His valet would come into the kitchen with three or four bottles of plums to be kept in the fridge.”

Next: Forget the royal train.

5. The queen travels to estate on public train

Queen Elizabeth riding a train.
She rides the rails on this special day. | Chris Jackson/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Of course, Queen Elizabeth has her royal train, but she is not above taking public transportation. In fact, that is the method she chooses to take when she travels to Sandringham for the holidays.

The average cost of a ticket is less than $85.00.

Next: Who’s up for a match?

6. William and Harry play soccer with workers and villagers

Prince Harry and Prince William standing closely and laughing together.
The royals get involved in the community even more during the holidays. | Arthur Edwards /WPA Pool/Getty Images

Some families love to get outdoors with everyone when they all get together for the holidays. The royals love that idea too, and it’s become a tradition for Prince William and Prince Harry to join in a game of soccer with the estate workers and local villagers each year.

Next: A penny for tea

7. Tea time consists of a ‘penny’

Queen Elizabeth holding a plate of tea and treats.
A time for traditional sweets and treats | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

McGrady also spoke about the family’s afternoon tea time that takes place every Christmas Eve.

He said with their tea, the family really enjoys a sandwich called “jam penny.” The food got its name because it is cut into circles the size of an old English penny.

Next: Drinks for everyone

8. Royals relax with adult beverages

Prince Harry interacts with children in a choir.
After a long day of activities, caroling and visiting guests, you’d need a drink too. | Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images

Like most families, after so many busy hours prepping for the perfect holiday, the royals need time to kick back and unwind.

The queen’s cocktail of choice is a Zaza, which is made from Dubonnet and gin. Prince Charles opts for cherry brandy, and William and Harry prefer Sandringham cider. Yes, the cider is produced right there at the estate.

Next: Not enough rooms at the estate

9. Some guests sleep in staff quarters

The royal family and guests stand in from of The Sandringham Estate.
There isn’t always enough room for everyone. | Adrian Dennis/WPA Pool/Getty Images

The Sandringham estate is not as large as some of the other royal residences, so with a growing family staying there at Christmastime, it does get a bit crowded. Therefore, in order to accommodate all of the guests, some sleep in the staff quarters.

As one former staffer said, “There are so many people staying that some of the minor royals have to sleep in what would normally be staff accommodation. Some of the servants have to make do with cottages on the estate or digs in surrounding villages.”

Next: The family that prays together, stays together.

10. Family attends service on Christmas Day

Queen Elizabeth sits at a desk surrounded by Christmas decorations.
Queen Elizabeth seated at a desk | John Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty Images

The royals attend mass on Christmas Day. The queen is driven to St. Mary Magdalene’s church but the rest of the family makes the annual walk to the service as many locals and well-wishers line the streets to catch a glimpse of them.

Anyone who wants to attend this mass must pass a security check several months in advance.

Next: The menus are written in another language

11. Christmas Day menus are in French

Prince Harry meets members of the public as he attends a Christmas Day church service.
The busy day includes an intimate lunch after service and activities. | Chris Jackson/Getty Images

As with all special occasions, the queen’s menus are in French. So, every family member should probably brush up on their Français before ordering lunch on Christmas.

Next: What the royals eat

12. Turkey with all the trimmings

Queen Elizabeth looks at homemade scones.
The queen uses this time to show her appreciate to her staff. | Sharon Smith/AFP/Getty Images

Speaking of the Christmas Day meals, McGrady gave insight into what the royals eat for lunch after they all leave the church services and go back to the estate. The former chef said that two 25-pound turkeys are prepared. He also explained that on this day, the queen always gives the head cook a drink for all their work.

“It’s the one time of the year that she would give the head chef a drink, and he will toast [the family] with ‘Happy Christmas,'”McGrady said.

NextRed room isn’t red

13. A meal in the Red Drawing Room

Queen Elizabeth sitting on a gold throne.
A time to get dressed to the nines.| Ian Leslie Macdonald/Getty Images

The dining room in which the family gathers to eat is called the Red Drawing Room, but despite its name, the room isn’t red at all. The Red Drawing Room is actually painted green.

However, when they’re with family and enjoying great food the color of the room is not something they concern themselves with.

Next: Game night or yoga?

14. Family exercises or the queen’s puzzles

Queen Elizabeth and Kate Middleton laughing together.
There is never a dull moment on Christmas. | Phil Noble/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Another tradition the royals keep is immediately following lunch, everyone gathers around to watch the queen’s annual Christmas address, which is taped prior. Then, they have the option of going to exercise on the estate or to join in and help put together some of Her Majesty’s favorite jigsaw puzzles.

Next: Making their own traditions

15. William and Kate alternate Christmases

The royal family walks together on Christmas.
They find a balance between traditions and creating brand new memories. | Andrew Matthews/WPA Pool/Getty Images

The entire royal family staying at Sandringham has been a long-running tradition in the royal family. In fact, after she married Prince Charles, Dianna never spent the holiday with the Spencers. However, William and Kate have changed that rule and have alternated some Christmases with the Windsors and the Middletons.

In 2011, the first year they were married, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were at Sandringham. However, the following year, when Kate was pregnant with George, they spent the holiday with her family in Berkshire.

Follow Michelle Kapusta on Twitter @philamichelle.

Read more: You Won’t Believe This Dark Secret About the British Royal Family

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