Happy (Early) Christmas! The Royals' Historic Holiday Traditions — Including Roasted Peacocks

© Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

Looking for inspiration for the holiday season? With three months to go until Christmas, a definitive account of how the royals celebrate has been compiled just in time for the big countdown.

Whether turkey at the Christmas dinner table (credit Edward VII) or the introduction of decorated fir trees, many of the familiarities of the holidays either stem from the royal household — or are adopted by them.

Now a new book from the Royal Collection, A Royal Christmas (out Oct. 18), uses the Royal Archives to show off 150 celebratory objects and lore.

The Christmas Tree

While it is often said that Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced the idea of having an evergreen tree as a centerpiece of the celebrations, the practice had actually existed in the royal household for around 80 years. George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, was raised in Germany (like Albert) — where they would “deck a single yew bough” with decorations and gather around it to exchange gifts. At Windsor, she “transformed the ritual into a festive spectacle that could be enjoyed not only by family and friends but by the wider court,” author Louise Cooling writes.

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Queen Elizabeth, who joked this year about her great-grandchildren enjoying “knocking” the ornaments off her tree, donates Christmas trees to schools and churches around Sandringham annually.

The Gifts

These days, the royals often limit themselves to gag gifts. But King Henry VIII would use the receiving of gifts to show his disapproval. In 1532, he was offered gifts by his wife Catherine of Aragon and the woman he had his eye on: Anne Boleyn. He rejected the presents from the Queen in favor of those from Anne.

Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, would shower her with presents of fine jewelry. One she valued the most, according to the book, was a brooch with an enamel portrait of their first child, Victoria, in the “guise of a cherub,” given on Christmas 1841. Victoria would write that it had been “entirely his own idea and taste.”

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The Cards

Think you’ve got a long holiday card list? The Queen sends out around 750 every year, signed “Elizabeth R and Philip,” and usually featuring a family photograph. Prince Philip, 97, also adds 200 of his own to his regiments and other societies. A Royal Christmas illustrates some early examples of the family portraits they have been using for decades to update  family and friends — a practice started by the Queen’s parents, George VI and Queen Elizabeth, when they were more humbly titled the Duke and Duchess of York and raising young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret.

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The Feast

Roasted peacocks, “served in their own plumage” were once on the menu in the early centuries of the monarchy. Also served at that time: brawn, a “terrine made from meat of a pig’s head,” or roast capon, swan and even a pie filled with lamprey (an eel-like fish) which would be given to the Sovereign by the people of Gloucester in the 11th century. Later, it was a boar’s head that would take center stage on the royal table after it was introduced by Henry II in the 12th century. Thankfully, for the current members of the family, tastes have changed — though the boar’s head is still served from a side table. Plum broth, which had been popular since Charles I’s day and included beef and veal and large amounts of port and rum (as well as fruit), was replaced by plum pudding in Queen Victoria’s time and continues today.

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The Entertainment

In Henry VIII’s time, festivities were led by the jovially-named Lord of Misrule beginning on Christmas Eve and ending on January 6. With his outfit decorated with ribbons, bells and jewels, he would lead a parade of entertainers — and even the king had to obey his commands during the entertainment. More recently, it has been the royals themselves who like to dress up and perform. The book contains pictures of the outfits that the then-Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret wore as they put on Aladdin for their parents and the members of the royal household at Windsor Castle in December 1943. Their show — which was watched by Prince Philip four years before he was to wed Elizabeth — included “topical references” and “teasing inside jokes.”

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The following year, the young royals were even more ambitious, with sets for their show, Old Mother Red Riding Boots, designed by Academy-Award winning art director Vincent Korda. Charging admission for royal household members, they raised around $390 in today’s money for charity.

A Royal Christmas ($13.20) is available from the Royal Collection Trust on October 18.

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