Most of us enjoy a few family traditions at Christmas and the royals are no exception. For more than three decades, the royal family has gathered at Sandringham, Norfolk to enjoy the festive season, and 2023 looks set to continue the tradition with a few changes being made this year by King Charles and Queen Camilla.
The royal gathering in Norfolk for Christmas is a long-held tradition which dates back to 1870 when the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, took ownership of the house, but this fell away during Queen Victoria’s reign as she preferred to spend the season at Windsor Castle. The return to Sandringham only became customary again in 1988, when the family chose it as an alternative to Windsor Castle, which was being rewired following a fire that caused extensive damage to the historic building.
Sandringham proved a favourable destination as the Christmas celebrations in Norfolk continued and Queen Elizabeth subsequently spent 32 Christmases here – usually arriving by train from King’s Cross to King’s Lynn in mid-December – broken only by the restrictions imposed during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. However, King Charles returned in 2022 and, although the royals’ attendance is only officially confirmed a few weeks ahead of the big day, all indications are that the family will return for 2023, with Sandringham House closed to the public until spring 2024.
Although Sandringham only returned to favour in the late 80s, the estate was cherished by Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather, George VI, who described it as, ‘the place I love better than anywhere else in the world’, and the monarch recorded the first Christmas broadcast here in 1932. The late Queen’s father also loved the 20,000-acre estate and, after his passing at Sandringham on 6 February 1952, she in turn broadcast her first Christmas Day message later that year from the house.
Image (left) Windsor Castle
Around 70 members of the wider royal family join the monarch at Sandringham at Christmas, many arriving on Christmas Eve to exchange ‘joke’ gifts over afternoon tea and later to enjoy a black-tie ball. Over the years, some of the prank presents exchanged by the royal family have been reported, with Princess Anne said to have gifted her brother a leather toilet seat, Sarah Ferguson unwrapping a leopard print bath mat from Princess Diana, and her son, Prince William, cheekily wrapping a pair of slippers with a photograph of Queen Elizabeth’s face on them for his grandmother. Princess Catherine has spoken about giving a jar of her grandmother’s chutney to the late Queen – the condiment apparently appeared on the dining table the next day, a gesture greatly appreciated by the young guest.
With guests staying in the house’s numerous bedrooms and across the estate – the Prince and Princess of Wales five minutes away at their Norfolk home, Anmer Hall – the royal family gathers for breakfast before joining King Charles and Queen Camilla at the estate’s tiny 16th century church, St Mary Magdalene on Christmas Day morning.
From the early hours, many royalists and well-wishers, along with television camera crews from around the world, wait along the path and at the gate to catch a glimpse of the royal family as they take the ten-minute walk to church, and afterwards as they return to Sandringham House.
While the final guest list has yet to be confirmed, along with the Prince and Prince of Wales and their three children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis, the Princess Royal and her family, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, and the Earl and Countess of Wessex and their children are likely to attend the service before returning to the house for a traditional turkey lunch at 12.45, and later a dinner buffet.
This year, for the first time, Queen Camilla’s two children, Tom Parker Bowles and Laura Lopes, and the Queen’s five grandchildren are expected to join the gathering and it has been reported that the additional numbers will see the Christmas lunch moved from the dining room, which seats 22 at a table brought from Queen Victoria’s Isle of Wight home, to the ballroom.
While the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are said to have been in contact with King Charles on the occasion of his 75th birthday in recent weeks, reports indicate that an invitation to attend the family gathering has not been extended and so it is unlikely Prince Harry and Meghan will visit Sandringham this year.
Image (right) Sandringham Church
The royal family has traditionally held a Boxing Day shoot, and since King Edward VII’s time shooting party guests are weighed on a jockey’s scale – which sits in the saloon at Sandringham House – upon arrival and prior to their departure, to ensure they have gained weight, thanks to the 12- or 14- course meals served. The ‘ideal’ weight gain is apparently 1.4kg! King Edward’s love of shooting meant that, until his death, clocks in the house were set to ‘Sandringham time’, 30 minutes early, to squeeze as much daylight as possible in the field.
While the late Queen, and her father before her, used to stay at the estate until early February, King Charles and Queen Camilla left early in the New Year to travel to Scotland in 2022. Sandringham House reopens in March, when the house’s reception rooms can be visited and, while the Christmas decorations have been packed away for another year, you can see where the royals enjoy the festive season for yourself. Book a spring break at Heacham Manor and buy a ticket to tour Sandringham House – the perfect Christmas gift to yourself!
Image (left) Sandringham House