In Depth

Inside Sandringham: the Royals’ favourite place to celebrate Christmas

The Queen is ‘committed’ to getting the family together at the historic Norfolk home

The Sandringham Estate is the Queen’s much-loved country retreat in north Norfolk, famous for being the Royal Family’s chosen place to spend Christmas each year.

Last year, however, the Queen and the late Duke of Edinburgh spent the festive season “privately at Windsor Castle” where they had been shielding throughout the winter lockdown, The Guardian reported at the time.

It was the first time in more than three decades that the monarch did not spend Christmas with her family on the Sandringham Estate.

This year, the Queen is “more determined than ever” to get the family together at their winter residence, said Cosmopolitan. A Palace source told The Mirror that “it is incredibly important to Her Majesty to be surrounded by her loved ones,” and she is “totally committed to hosting everyone”. 

That could include Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who are “reportedly planning to travel back to the UK for the holidays, along with their children, Archie and Lili”, said Cosmopolitan.

After having to cancel a number of engagements over recent months due to concerns about the monarch’s health, “the family get-together will be the perfect tonic”, the Mirror’s source said.

Grounds for celebration

The 8,000-hectare estate contains the Sandringham Royal Park, which is open to the public free of charge every day of the year. On Father’s Day this year, Prince William surprised runners taking part in an inaugural half marathon in the grounds by turning up to cheer them on, accompanied by Prince George and Princess Charlotte.

Sandringham is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as “Sant Dersingham”, the estate’s website reported, and there is evidence of a house on the present site as early as 1296.

Royals throughout history have both lived in and had a strong affinity with the home, including Edward VII, King George V and today’s Queen Elizabeth, who opened the house to the public in 1977, her Silver Jubilee year.

King George V once described Sandringham as “the place I love better than anywhere else in the world”, says the website, and his grandson, King George VI, the Queen’s father, wrote that he was “always” happy at Sandringham and “I love the place”.

Long before” meeting and marrying the Prince of Wales, Princess Diana also had a “huge royal connection” to the residence, Hello! magazine said. She was born at Park House, a property located on the Sandringham estate. The house was offered by the monarch to the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity in 1983, and became a hotel for disabled guests and their companions to enjoy together.

How the tradition began

The tradition of the Sandringham Christmas party was begun by the then future Edward VII in 1864, and was “adopted enthusiastically by the present Royal Family”, the Daily Express says.

During the 1960s, when the Queen’s children were young, the Royals generally spent Christmas at Windsor Castle. But in the 1980s, they transferred the festive celebration to Sandringham because the Berkshire property was being rewired. They enjoyed the change of venue so much that they then opted to return in following years.

The tradition is held dearly by the Queen. In her 1992 Christmas broadcast, the monarch said: “I first came here for Christmas as a grandchild. Nowadays my children come here for the same family festival. To me, this continuity is a great source of comfort in a world of tension and violence.”

Step inside

According to The Telegraph, the house was once described as “the most comfortable in England” and “boasted a shower and flushing water closets far earlier than many others in Britain”.

The main ground-floor rooms are regularly used by the royals but are also open to the public. The decor and “contents remain very much as they were in Edwardian times”, according to the estate’s website.

In 2013, the Daily Mail reported that the house was not large enough to accommodate the 30 guests invited to the Christmas celebrations that year. “Despite being set in 600 acres of woodland, the house is small by royal standards and quarters are said to be ‘cramped’,” the newspaper said. Guests were invited instead to stay in the servant’s quarters and other nearby cottages.

More than 200 people work at the estate, including gamekeepers, gardeners, farmers and employees in Sandringham’s sawmill and its apple juice-pressing plant, according to Town and Country magazine. 

“The estate places a huge emphasis on recycling, conservation and forestry, and is a sanctuary for wildlife,” the magazine adds. Sandringham is also famed for hosting royal shooting and hunting parties.

Christmas celebrations

Typically the Queen travels to Sandringham by train, arriving at the nearby King’s Lynn Station. However, she took a helicopter to the estate in November, following advice from doctors not to travel by rail. 

The dining room is decorated with “a large silver artificial tree”, on which the Queen and her great-grandchildren put “the final touches” together, said Norfolk Live.

It’s tradition, according to the Royal Household, that the family lay out presents for one another on Christmas Eve and exchange at teatime. The Queen also hands out gifts to some members of the household at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, while staff in all the palaces, the Court Post Office and the Palace police receive a Christmas pudding and card from the monarch.

Once the children are tucked up for the night, “the adults enjoy a glitzy black-tie evening”, Norfolk Live continued. “A four-course meal and a lot of champagne” are enjoyed, and the Queen’s favourite cocktail - a “Zaza” - features too. 

On 25 December, after attending a private service at 9am, the family make their way to St Mary Magdalene Church on the estate for the 11am Christmas Day service. Later, the Queen delivers her Christmas broadcast, and “the whole family is said to watch it together”, the news site continued. After the traditional lunch, it’s onto “charades, jigsaw puzzles, or a movie projected onto a screen in the ballroom”, said Good Housekeeping

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