Christmas for royal children didn’t used to be much fun.
As the rest of the nation’s youth were overdosing on sugar, tearing open gifts, and trashing the house with impunity, royal kids, like Prince William and Prince Harry in the 1990s, still had to conform to an ancient idea of a perfect Christmas: starched clothes, church and, worst of all, no presents.
They were all opened the day before on Christmas Eve, leaving the big day itself reserved for lots of God and plenty of duty.
The highlight of the Royal Christmas Day was watching the Queen’s Speech on telly at 3 p.m.
It was all rather joyless, not helped by the fact that only the Queen’s immediate family were invited to lunch, with in-laws being persona non-grata.
However, like many other facets of royal life, Christmas has been given a gigantic reboot by the arrival of Kate Middleton.
Now, Christmas for the Windsor grandchildren at least bears a passing similarity to the festive season as enjoyed by the rest of the nation.
Kate is said to be driven by a determination that her children grow up participating in a convincing simulacrum of normal life, and celebrating a ‘normal’ Christmas is a key part of that.
Crafty Kate did not, however, rush to make changes to the royal Christmas format. For the first few years of her marriage to William, she patiently toed the line, giving her gifts on Christmas Eve and allowing them to be laid out on tables in the red Drawing Room by staff (according to the Germanic custom of the royals).
She attended the formal lunch at Sandringham, which is a remarkably brief ‘festive’ meal because it has to be finished well before 3 p.m. to allow guests to move through to the drawing room to watch the Queen’s speech. Adding to the iciness, the Queen splits off from her family and watches her address in private on her own.
Sources say that children are not allowed to join the adults for any meals at Sandringham until they are 11 or 12, eating instead in a separate room.
This segregation is thought to have been a deciding factor that pushed William and Kate to make changes to the festive routine, which manifested in last year’s overhaul for Prince George’s second Christmas.
Rather than going back to the Queen’s place after church, Kate, William, and George went to Anmer Hall, where presents were doled out before a relaxed, long lunch with Kate’s family. George was fully included, as Charlotte will be this year.
By the standards of British royalty, this was a bold and decisive move—and a clear statement that the Cambridges were unafraid to leave behind the antiquated traditions slavishly adhered to by generations of royals and inherited from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
These days, the principal influence on the Cambridge Christmas is not Queen Victoria, but Carole Middleton.
The royal in-law famously runs a wildly successful party supplies website, Party Pieces, making it certain that Prince George and Princess Charlotte will be enjoying the most well-accessorized of Christmases.
Writing in the latest issue of U.K. magazine Homemaker, Carole suggested making a “paper-and-string sew your own Christmas garland,” which she described as perfect for “young helpers to personalize.”
And how will Kate’s Christmas table look? Pretty lit up, if Carole, who is expected to be in Norfolk with the royal family for the entire festive season, has anything to do with it, as she also recommends using miniature electric table lights, “weaving them through a Christmas wreath for a centerpiece.”
There is also the possibility that George will be wearing a charm bracelet this Christmas, if Kate takes her mother’s advice and creates an advent calendar where each day the kid gets “a delicate charm” that builds up to create a bracelet.
In another column (Carole’s becoming almost as media-prolific as her daughter, Pippa) for Little London magazine, Carole selected some of her favorite items off her website: an elf selfie kit, Christmas pajamas, and a reindeer piñata which you can “fill with festive treats for lots of Christmas fun.”
It is impossible to imagine the Queen taking to a piñata with a cricket bat, but Will and Kate? Why not? One of the things that most attracted William to Kate was her solidly middle-class family and values.
But there are, of course, some old-fashioned courtiers in the palace who resent Kate and William’s remorseless modernizing and democratizing of royal custom. They do not think that it is the wisest course of action for them to strive to be “just like everyone else.”
“Shouldn’t they be a bit different [from the rest of Britain]?” one aristocrat told the Royalist, “Isn’t that part of the point of them?”
Perhaps it was once, but not any more—and the Cambridge Christmas will be the perfect example of the new order.