Every year we tune in to watch Queen Elizabeth II send her Christmas message out to the world. Oftentimes, she has discussed what the Royal Family does for the holidays. While a retreat to Sandringham is an annual event, other traditions for the Windsors include sharing Christmas gifts at tea on Christmas Eve, supper, a church service, and the giving of Christmas puddings to the staff. And while these are the traditions of the modern Royal Family, Christmas has been very different for the preceding generations of Royals going all the way back to the Norman Conquest.
In fact, King William I’s most important day as a monarch came on December 25, 1066, when he was crowned in Westminster Abbey. Another early king also saw Christmas as an important day. King Stephen was born around Christmas in approximately 1095 (though the exact year appears to be lost to history) and was later crowned just three days before Christmas on December 22, 1135. During this time, Christmas wasn’t the celebration we know it today. It was treated as a solemn day on which a special mass would be held.
However, not long after, the celebrations on the continent reached Britain including feasting. Queen Elizabeth II also wasn’t the first monarch to travel for the holiday. King Henry II was fond of vacationing in Ireland around the holiday and eventually had a palace specially-built for this Christmas holidays and would host lavish feasts there that included exotic dishes such as crane. King Henry III continued this tradition and at one feast party guests dined on 30 oxen, 100 sheep, 5 boars, 81 fowl, and more.
And while the Medieval monarchs feasted and gave out gifts, including Christmas Day honors (surely a predecessor to the modern New Year’s Day Honors), the Tudors were a bit more reserved. In fact, between them King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I killed a couple traditions. Henry wasn’t a fan of the celebration of “boy bishops”, young lads who would be dressed as real bishops and perform their duties for a number of days, and had them banned in 1542. Elizabeth later ended the holiday tradition of Misrule, a celebration where masters and servants would switch places, jesters would act as kings, and men and women wore each other’s clothes.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last time Christmas celebrations got the ax. Following the execution of King Charles I and the beginning of the Commonwealth, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell outlawed practically all Christmas celebrations with the exception of Christmas church services. In fact, Cromwell also outlawed Christmas feasts and even ordered soldiers to seize any feasts prepared for the holiday. King Charles II’s Restoration brought back Christmas with it as he reversed the laws barring holiday festivities.
The Hanoverian dynasty was responsible for its own Christmas traditions when King George I began his rule in 1714. It was during Christmas that George had his first Christmas plum pudding. The unproven story goes that George tasted the dish during his very first Christmas as monarch and his reaction was so strong that he was dubbed “The Pudding King”. His grandson’s wife, Queen Charlotte, was also the first person to introduce the Christmas Tree as a tradition from Germany, but it would not catch on until Prince Albert also brought it over with him. Decades later, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria’s grandson, King George V, would deliver the first Christmas message by radio. Queen Elizabeth continued this tradition after her father’s death in 1952 and gave the first televised Christmas message in 1957.
Each generation has celebrated the holiday differently and introduced their own traditions or continued ones from years prior. It remains to be seen how the holiday will change with subsequent monarchs, whether we’ll see Christmas presents traded on December 24th or the streaming of the Christmas message over Instagram. Some things change, and some stay the same, but Christmas will always be a holiday dear to the Royal Family and to all of us.