January 6 comes and goes, and most of us who celebrate Christmas, fearing bad luck, haul down our decorations. But in one corner of the United Kingdom, there’s a home that stays decorated for an extra month. It’s the Queen’s Sandringham Estate, and the reason that she doesn’t take the tinsel down will move you.
Now, the Queen likes to spend all of the Christmas and New Year holiday at her residence at Sandringham, Norfolk in the east of England. Indeed, she stays there until February, only then going back to Buckingham Palace. This has been her tradition for many years – and the Queen, as you might expect, loves tradition.
Yes, since 1988 the British Royal Family has enjoyed its Christmas festivities in the Norfolk countryside. But in the 1960s the Queen held a lot of her Christmases at Windsor Castle. That’s where she also spends Easter. However, in the 1980s the castle was in need of rewiring, so the royals returned to Sandringham.
Like many of us, the Queen enjoys hanging decorations to celebrate Christmas. And most of us will take those down on Twelfth Night, although it’s not always agreed when that is. Usually, Christmas Day is considered the first day of Christmas – but does that mean the bad luck starts on January 5, 12 nights later, or the next day?
And why is the 12th night so special? Well, because that’s reportedly the night the three wise men, the Magi, came to visit Jesus in the manger. Yes, January 6 is celebrated in the Christian world as the Epiphany: the day Jesus was revealed to non-Jews as God. The word “epiphany” literally means appearance or revelation, particularly of a god to humans.
As you can appreciate, the day has always been special in the Christian world. For instance, in Spain “kings” parade through towns giving out candy. Meanwhile, in Ireland people put figurines of the Three Kings on the crib in nativity decorations. And in the early days of America, colonists would hang up wreaths for Christmas, which contained bits of fruit to be eaten on Twelfth Night.
What’s more, food is a big part of Twelfth Night, particularly traditional cakes. In England and France, these would contain a pea or a bean. And if your slice had the pea, you’d be considered the queen. If you had the bean, you’d be king. The same “kings’ cakes” are a feature of celebrations in New Orleans’ workplaces, where whoever gets a slice with a plastic “baby” included will have to bring the next year’s cake.
Traditionally, in France, people eat “kings’ cakes” for the whole of January. You see, in the north they are rich confections full of fruit, frangipane or chocolate. While in the south they go with a brioche-type cake stuffed with candied fruit. Meanwhile, in London, one Robert Baddeley made a provision in his will of a cake for whoever was playing at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane on Twelfth Night. To this day, actors enjoy cake thanks to Baddeley.
Furthermore, the kings’ cake is not the only food made on the night. Yes, for pastries are baked around the world to be eaten on the Epiphany. And alongside traditional food comes traditional drink. In fact, Twelfth Night used to be marked with wassailing, which is quite like caroling, until the tradition died out in the 1950s.
Now, the custom of wassailing went back hundreds of years. You see, “Wassail” originates in the Anglo-Saxon cry “waes hael,” translating as “good health.” And the drink that carries the same name was a mix of mulled ale, apples, cream, eggs and spices. What’s more, this incredibly rich brew was dished up from gargantuan containers made for the purpose.
In fact, the tradition has such distant origins that some tales about it are legends themselves. For instance, one describes how a young Saxon woman called Rowena gave the Saxon Prince Vortigen a cup of wine. And in toasting him, she said, “Waes hael.” From there, a ceremony built up around the wassail cup that grew ever more intricate.
Another version of the tradition takes place in the west of England. There, on January 17 – which is Twelfth Night under the old Julian calendar – wassailers drink to the health of fruit trees, hoping that singing will bring about a bumper harvest. Whether the toasting of cider actually does promote the growth of apples, is another thing entirely.
But regardless of how people celebrate Twelfth Night, for most it’s the day the decorations come down. And almost no matter where you are in the world at Christmas time, you’ll find places festooned in lights, glitter, tinsel and all the other trappings that celebrate the time of year. This is, of course, alongside nativity scenes and the odd statue of Santa.
For instance, in the Philippines you might see a huge lantern spinning in the air. These blurs of color are known as parols. Meanwhile, Swedes like to light up their mooses. And their Danish neighbors turn Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens into a Christmas wonderland. Meanwhile, in London, Harrods is famous for its store window display, and of course many department stores around the world follow suit.
Even in hotter climes, such as in Africa, people love the decorative side of the season. For example, in Egypt, the Coptic minority love to celebrate Christmas, and stores do a brisk business selling them festive wares. And in Kenya, houses become festooned with ribbons and balloons, while Mexico enjoys poinsettias and piñatas. Curiously, many Greeks in coastal areas prefer to dress up boats rather than trees.
In contrast, Chinese trees show off beautiful paper ornaments in the form of flowers, lanterns and garlands. And Aussies often decorate their trees with seashells and the leaves of eucalyptus. Meanwhile, Germans often hide a Christmas pickle among their decorations, which delights children who hunt for it. And Ukrainians sometimes go for the weird too: they decorate with spiders and their webs.
As you can imagine, the Queen loves to decorate her tree too, although with more conventional ornaments. And she has plenty of other traditions on Christmas Day, not least her visit to St. Mary Magdalene church, near Sandringham. Now, this is customary for royals, and even Queen Victoria enjoyed her Christmas service there in the 19th century.
However, in 2019 the family had a couple of new additions to the Sandringham protocol. For you see, Prince George and Princess Charlotte – Prince William’s children – enjoyed a Christmas walk with the family. But Prince Louis didn’t join them in church – perhaps it was considered too much for an infant barely a year old.
In fact, the Queen actually houses her family at Sandringham for the holiday period, with a couple of exceptions. You see, Prince William and his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, actually reside at Anmer Hall, which is not too far away. This is the prince’s own 18th-century home in Norfolk, which the Queen gave him as a wedding gift.
Back at Sandringham, the Queen’s Christmas tree carries on a tradition that began with her forebear Queen Charlotte, George III’s consort. In fact, trees weren’t a thing for the Brits at Christmas time before Charlotte introduced one to her kids. Her grandchild Queen Victoria loved her Christmas tree, which went up in her room every year when she was a child.
Although new to the United Kingdom at the time, Christmas trees were common across northern Europe. And the idea of decorating a tree sprang up in the Baltic states during the Middle Ages. However, protestant Germans loved it, and they started putting up trees for Christmas too. Now, the trees were popular among the nobility at first, but soon everyone was doing it – except for Catholics. Indeed, there was no Christmas tree at the Vatican before 1982.
In the early days, people covered a Christmas tree with roses that they made from colored paper, sweetmeats, apples, wafers and tinsel. But in the 1700s, these were joined by candles. Today, though, the candles have become electric lights, and the ornaments a glittering array of colors. But edibles are still tied to the tree in the form of chocolates and other candy and gingerbread.
Once Queen Victoria had married Prince Albert, a German noble, Christmas trees became ever more popular. For instance, an 1842 newspaper advert talked about how smart they were and of their origins in Germany. From there, they became features of books and newspapers, although still somewhat restricted to the upper echelons of British society.
Nevertheless, as the century wore on, Christmas trees became even more popular, particularly in connection with charities and hospitals. Despite World War I with Germany giving their popularity a knock, before long everyone was putting up a tree. And by the 2010s as many as eight million Christmas trees were being grown for the home market in Great Britain.
So Christmas is of course a time of gift giving, and the royals certainly join in with the spirit. For you see, they set out their gifts on tables the day before Christmas and then exchange them at tea. But the custom of giving gifts on Christmas Eve only began at the time of the Reformation, around the 16th century. Before then, people had given presents on the saint day of St. Nicholas, which is earlier in December.
Now, the Queen doesn’t just give gifts, for she also likes to send out Christmas cards. And the cards, which are adorned with a photo of The Royal Family, are sent to 750 people. Each is signed by the Queen and Prince Phillip, and just in case there’s any doubt about who sent them, they are stamped with both of their ciphers.
What’s more, the card recipients are varied, from family and friends in the Royal Household to prime ministers across the Commonwealth. Adding to that, Governors-General and High Commissions also get a card, while Prince Philip sends a further 200 to military regiments. In addition to those, some charities and bodies close to the Duke of Edinburgh may also receive a season’s greeting.
But it doesn’t end at cards and family presents. You see, the Queen also gives gifts to everyone in the Royal Household, otherwise known as her staff. Some of them even get the presents personally from Her Majesty. And that’s not all. For her granddad, King George V, started a practice of handing out Christmas puddings to his staff, and his son King George VI and granddaughter the Queen continued it.
Approximately 1,500 puddings are given out to staff at the Queen’s palaces and the post office attached to her court – and even to the cops who guard her. And the puddings, which the Queen pays for herself, come with a card from the monarch and her spouse. So let’s just hope, at the end of all that, that they actually taste good!
Furthermore, the Queen’s generosity is extended to charities, too. You see, she gives cash to several of them in Windsor. Also, she donates trees to various churches with a royal connection, including Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Adding to that, schools and churches near Sandringham even get a tree from her.
And as we noted, it’s at Sandringham that the Queen spends Christmas, staying until February 6. Peculiarly, she is surrounded for the entire period by Christmas decorations. Yes, she leaves them up for a whole month after Twelfth Night. So why is the Queen untroubled by the suggestion that this can equate to bad luck?
Well, it turns out that February 6 is a special day for the Queen. For on that date in 1952, the life of King George VI, the Queen’s beloved father, ended at Sandringham. And to mark his passing, and celebrate his life, the Queen stays at her Norfolk estate with decorations up until that date.
For you see, the Queen was very close to her dad. And after his demise in 1952, she wrote to her secretary. According to The Independent she said, “It all seems so unbelievable still that my father is no longer here and it is only after some time has passed one begins to realize how much he is missed.”
And during another Christmas tradition, the Queen’s Speech, which she gives to the British nation every year on TV, the sovereign referred to her father in a moving way in 2019. Speaking about the D-Day invasion of Europe, she said, “This year we marked another important anniversary: D-Day. On June 6, 1944, some 156,000 British, Canadian and American forces landed in northern France.”
As Her Majesty continued to explain, “It was the largest ever seaborne invasion and was delayed due to bad weather.” And then she revealed a personal side to that day, saying, “I well remember the look of concern on my father’s face. He knew the secret D-Day plans but could of course share that burden with no one.”
Indeed, the Queen had had a close bond with King George VI. For he was famously devoted to her and younger sister Margaret when they were little. And Margaret was somewhat more lively than the quiet, reserved Elizabeth – known to her family as “Lilibet.” The king – in those days just Duke Albert of York – called the queen-to-be his “pride” and her sister his “joy.”
Interestingly, when Albert’s brother King Edward VIII abdicated the throne, he became King George VI. Of course, that now meant that his eldest daughter would herself be crowned one day. To help her prepare, the King directed Elizabeth to pen a description of his own coronation as she watched on. And what she wrote reveals the regard that she held him in.
Indeed, Elizabeth described her dad’s entrance to Westminster Abbey in a tone of awe. She wrote, “Then came Papa looking very beautiful in a crimson robe and the Cap of State. I thought it all very, very wonderful and I expect the Abbey did, too.” Indeed, she said that her dad was crowned in a “haze of wonder.”
As George’s reign progressed, he handed over some royal duties to his heir. And in fact, in her teens, Elizabeth gave a radio broadcast to help comfort child war evacuees. Intriguingly, she joined the war effort herself as a behind-the-scenes mechanic as soon as she was able. Once she reached adulthood, Elizabeth was also entrusted with being her dad’s stand-in when he couldn’t represent the United Kingdom.
Eventually, when George passed, the new queen took on her new responsibilities stoically. But memorably, you could still hear the pain in her voice during her announcement proclaiming herself queen. She said, “My heart is too full for me to say more to you today than I shall always work, as my father did throughout his reign, to advance the happiness and prosperity of my peoples.”