Britain's royal family Christmas traditions: guest weigh-ins and novelty gifts only

From hopping on the royal scales to check if guests have 'enjoyed' themselves enough, to more than five outfit changes a day, here we look inside the traditional royal family festivities at the Norfolk estate

The British royal family gathers at Sandringham each year to celebrate Christmas, with plenty of old traditions to be adhered to. GC Images, AFP
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Royal-watchers will know that Sandringham is the Norfolk estate where the British royal family traditionally congregate at Christmas. The area was mentioned in the 11th-century Domesday Book and came into royal hands in 1862, when Queen Victoria bought it for her eldest son, Albert Edward, in the hopes that marriage and a move to the country would be a calming influence on her sociable son.

As befitting a royal establishment which used to exist in its own time zone – "Sandringham Time", for which clocks were set half an hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time to allow for more evening light for winter hunting – the estate is immersed in traditions, some dating back centuries, some more modern.

The film Spencer, which recently arrived in cinemas and focuses on three days Princess Diana spent at Sandringham over Christmas, shines a light on many royal rituals, leaving audiences wondering which parts of the film are real and which parts are fantasy.

“The great thing about the truth and reality is it’s always so weird and bonkers, and much more outlandish than anything you create,” Spencer screenwriter Steven Knight told Vanity Fair. “So, everything in the movie that seems unbelievable is true... I spoke to people who served and observed. And I got actual events, things that happened, stepping stones, which you could use to create the drama.”

While we can be pretty sure Diana didn’t rip off her pearl necklace into her soup and then start eating the pearls as depicted by Kristen Stewart in the movie, one scene in particular has got audiences talking: the annual Windsor family weigh in.

We delve into the secrets behind what a royal Christmas looks like at Sandringham (Covid restrictions notwithstanding)…

The queen really does weigh her guests

Queen Elizabeth II has carried on a tradition started by King Edward VII in weighing guests at Sandringham at the start and end of their visit, to see how much they 'enjoyed' themselves. AFP

The tradition of weighing guests at the start of the three-day festivities dates back to the reign of Edward VII, who was king from 1901 to 1910. Edward decided that weight gain during their stay was indicative of how much his guests had enjoyed themselves.

Guests were weighed at the start and end of their visit, with 1.4 kilograms the preferred amount for them to have put on, and it's a tradition Queen Elizabeth II has carried on.

Arrivals and a strict 72-hour schedule

Sandringham festivities are timed to last for 72 hours, from Christmas Eve until Boxing Day. As for who arrives first, the queen heads to the country estate a few days before her family, with junior royals arriving early on Christmas Eve, followed by more senior royals.

The family sits down to lunch on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day starts with the family attending the service at the 16th-century St Mary Magdalene Church on the estate.

Cheap, novelty gifts only

Front from left: Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Rear From left, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, Price William, Meghan Markle, and her fiancee Prince Harry, right, as they wait for the Queen to leave by car following the traditional Christmas Day church service, at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham, England, Monday, Dec. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Adhering to German traditions, the royal family exchange gifts after afternoon tea on Christmas Eve. Presents are laid out on a table in the Red Drawing Room, with expensive offerings frowned upon.

As the preference is for joke and prank gifts, The Mirror reports that Kate Middleton gave Prince Harry a novelty “Grow Your Own Girlfriend” kit, before he started dating Meghan Markle; Princess Anne gifted Prince Charles a leather toilet seat; Diana gave Sarah Ferguson a leopard print bath mat; and Prince William once gave Queen Elizabeth II a pair of slippers with her face on them.

“Meghan’s biggest challenge was finding the perfect novelty gifts to amuse her new extended family,” Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand wrote in Finding Freedom of Markle’s 2017 Christmas on the estate. “At least one of her gifts was a huge hit – a spoon for William that had ‘cereal killer’ embossed on the shallow bowl end of the utensil.”

Several outfit changes a day

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 12:  Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge attend the 70th EE British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) at the Royal Albert Hall on February 12, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas- WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Food and fashion go hand in hand at Sandringham, with many rules and traditions governing when and how meals should be eaten, and what should be worn at breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon tea. There are black-tie dinners on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with the queen overseeing a seating plan, which decrees that couples are not allowed to sit beside one another.

“You get up in one thing, then you have to change for church,” Princess Diana’s former royal butler Paul Burrell revealed in Channel 4’s A Very Royal Christmas: Sandringham Secrets. "You might change for lunch. You might then change to go for a walk in the afternoon. And then you will change for dinner."

Christmas Day dinner is served after the visit to the church and the recording of Queen Elizabeth II's annual message. Dinner is black-tie for men and full-length gowns, tiaras and jewels for women. The queen’s outfit dictates what all other guests should wear.

“Once Her Majesty has chosen her dress for dinner, a handwritten notice is pinned up in the Dressers’ Corridor detailing what she will be wearing, so that the Queen’s ladies’ maids can select an appropriate dress for the lady they are looking after,” Queen Elizabeth’s dresser, Angela Kelly, wrote in her book The Other Side of the Coin: The Queen, the Dresser and the Wardrobe.

“It can be quite exhausting,” royal expert Richard Kay said in A Very Royal Christmas: Sandringham Secrets. “It was one of the unbending rituals that both Princess Diana and the Duchess of York found quite hard to adjust to.”

Dinner table etiquette

When it comes to dining, there are plenty of unwritten rules only regulars to the estate would be au fait with.

According to A Very Royal Christmas: Sandringham Secrets, salt and pepper should be sprinkled on to the plate and not over the food, while drinks glasses should be held by the stem, not the bowl. When the queen finishes her meal and puts her fork and knife down, that’s the cue for all guests to finish too.

Former Sandringham chef Darren McGrady, author of Eating Royally: Recipes and Remembrances from a Palace Kitchen, has also revealed what the Windsors eat during the festive period.

“Turkey, different stuffings – sage and onion, chestnut – and the traditional sides like roast potatoes, mash potatoes, parsnips and Brussels sprouts," McGrady told Hello! Online. “The pudding was made in pudding basins, turned out, decorated in holly… and then the palace steward would carry it, flaming, into the royal dining room.”

He added: “Not long after they’d go in for afternoon tea. It was always the chocolate Yule log, which was a twist on the chocolate birthday cake, scones, mince pies, different types of sandwiches and the Christmas cake.”

Updated: December 18, 2021, 6:49 AM