She has rarely put a foot wrong in the course of her 68-year reign, so it is entirely unsurprising that Queen Elizabeth did the right thing this week, and announced that she was cancelling the traditional Royal Christmas.
For the first time in 37 years, Elizabeth and Prince Philip will not be taking the train to their country home, Sandringham, will not be joined by close family, and will not throw a big party at Buckingham Palace for the extended clan of royals in the last days of Advent.
Instead, they will sit out Christmas at Windsor Castle, alone with their servants. All family interaction, as it has been for the past nine months, will be carried out on phone and internet lines instead.
One imagines that ultimately this was an easy decision for a 94-year-old who just happens to be the most important person in Britain to make. Under British pandemic rules, they could have formed a bubble with two other households, and there was speculation they would team up with the Cambridges and the Waleses, but this would have prevented Kate from seeing her mom and Camilla from seeing her kids.
For the queen to sacrifice her own Christmas—a spokesperson said, “Her Majesty and The Duke of Edinburgh will be spending Christmas quietly in Windsor”—is an important and laudable act of leadership. It is a clear signal to the rest of the country to act cautiously. Casting an eye at rocketing case numbers on the other side of the Atlantic, where such leadership has been sadly lacking, one suspects the vast majority of her subjects will salute HM’s gesture.
But when the queen is cancelling Christmas, when there is no annual royal stroll to the chuch of St Mary Magdalene on Christmas Day, it is a sign, and a very tangible one at that, of just how completely the virus has upended every aspect of life; personal, private, public and political.
However, for those members of the royal family who now have their calendars for the festive season opening up before them like an empty highway on Christmas Day, the truth is that one year off of the Sandringham turkey-giblet gravy train is perhaps a welcome surprise.
The trouble with a Sandringham Christmas is that while it is all very luxurious and delicious, and you are waited on hand and foot, there is an undercurrent of austerity and duty that puts a dampener on things, especially when compared to the week long marathon of over-indulgence and sloth that the rest of the country enjoys.
Visitors to Sandringham, for example, are not allowed to forget that there is no more important day in the Christian calendar than Christmas. Her Majesty, as Defender of the Faith, has a tendency to pathologize her duty. One visit to church, for example, is the absolute minimum and the queen really prefers it if she and senior royals go twice.
There are other puritanical touches; Christmas presents are exchanged on Christmas Eve so as not to distract from the important spiritual message of the day with base consumerism. The Christmas tree is only decorated on Christmas Eve. Stockings, left at the end of children’s beds and filled with small gifts by Santa Claus in the British tradition, are not a feature of Christmas morning at Sandringham.
Lunch starts at 1 p.m. and all three courses are finished by 2:45 p.m., at which point everyone has to leave the table and file into the library to watch the Queen’s Speech on television. The queen and Prince Philip take themselves off to watch it privately elsewhere, re-emerging shortly afterwards.
The speech is pre-recorded and is likely to be taped, as have Her Majesty’s other television addresses this year, by technicians in bio-hazard suits occupying a separate room to their star performer and operating cameras remotely.
After the speech, the TV is switched off in favor of parlor games, such as those dramatized in The Crown, which showed Margaret Thatcher struggling to avoid covering her face in soot during the game ibble dibble.
So it is, perhaps, quite understandable that some of the younger members of the royal family may be secretly rather thrilled at the opportunity to spend Christmas like the rest of us, overeating and falling asleep on the couch in front of Netflix (definitely a Sandringham no-no) with too much chocolate.
The change in plans will also, rather conveniently, help paper over some tricky family politics; there need be no awkward questions this year about where Prince Andrew is, or whether Harry and Meghan will or will not be returning to the U.K. to be with their grandmother.
Meghan, who recently wrote about a miscarriage she suffered in July this year, is thought to be planning a quiet Christmas at their new home in Montecito, with Meghan’s mom Doria likely to be the only guest.
Harry and Meghan’s spokespeople declined to comment to The Daily Beast on the exact arrangements for the day.
Representatives for Kate and William also declined to comment. However, The Daily Beast understands that Kate has always insisted on making Christmas more normally middle-class. In previous years this has meant stockings at the end of the bed on Christmas morning and plenty of presents at Anmer Hall before joining the royals for church. They then tend to head back to Anmer Hall for a late-starting lunch stretching into the early evening. They essentially opt out of as much of the formal rigor and aristocratic oddity of Sandringham as possible.
But being off the hook for the Sandringham church appearance this year frees Kate, William, Louis, George and Charlotte to spend the whole of Christmas with the Middleton family—for the first time since 2012.
Carole, 65, who made a fortune from her party and Christmas shop Party Pieces, is known to be a Christmas enthusiast, and has popularized a trend for decorating multiple Christmas trees around the house. Just this week, she said on Instagram that Christmas Eve is a “special occasion in her family” and hinted that children in her family would leave cookies out for Santa, saying they, “get sweetly excited by the idea that Father Christmas is coming, and really want to give him something.”
For the Yorks, the cancellation of Sandringham will likely be a bit of a gift, and not just for the aforementioned lack of scrutiny on Andrew’s presence or absence. Again, no official comment on their festive movements was forthcoming but it is likely the York family, including their two daughters (one of whom, Eugenie, has announced she is pregnant) and husbands will gather together at Royal Lodge, the grace-and-favor home Andrew shares with his ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, on the Windsor estate.
Another person who is sure to be secretly delighted by the enforced change of plans is Camilla Parker Bowles.
The author Penny Junor, a key supporter of the Waleses who wrote Camilla’s biography, The Duchess, says that while Camilla has always got on well “on a personal level” with the queen she would be “delighted in a way to not be spending Christmas at Sandringham for the first time in 15 years” simply because Christmas with her family is much more relaxed with no “formal dinners or butlers.”
Usually, Junor says, Camilla does the full, formal Sandringham routine. Her one carve-out is that after the Queen’s Speech on TV is concluded, she hastily bids her farewells, leaps into her car and hightails it to be with her children at her own house in Wiltshire, several hours drive away.
Junor added: “She longs to see her family at Christmas so I imagine she will be thrilled to spend it at home with her children and grandchildren, slob about in a dressing gown and watch silly things on television with a large glass of wine like the rest of us.”
A spokesperson for Charles and Camilla declined to comment on their plans, although a source said that Camilla did plan to see her family over the festive period.
The queen is likely to be the big loser in this. Although it may feel like being on best behavior to others, Christmas is the time when the queen feels she lets her hair down a little.
But maybe, in her advancing years, the peace and quiet may not be as unwelcome as it once would have been. One can’t help wondering, if everyone enjoys Christmas 2020, whether the Big Royal Christmas at Sandringham could be yet another of COVID’s long-term casualties.