The Royal Flex of Christmas

In Depth
The Royal Flex of Christmas

The Windsors, never an institution to slouch on Christmas, are going even harder than usual. In addition to their usual festivities—a large gathering for Buckingham Palace staff, the much-photographed walk to church at Sandringham on Christmas Day, and the Queen’s annual address to the nation—Will and Kate joined television host Mary Berry for A Berry Royal Christmas for an intimate chat and a friendly baking competition, and the Firm also released a photo op of the sovereign and her three direct heirs gathered around Prince George stirring a Christmas pudding. But looming over the Christmas PR push are the multiplying troubles the monarchy faced in 2019, from the never-ending gossip about Meghan Markel to rumors of infidelity and Prince Andrew’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. This year, the Royal family used Christmas to shore up its dynasty, emphasizing its future through its generations of heirs.

Christmas has been an opportunity for the royal family to assert its royalness. As Judith Flanders notes in Christmas: A Biography, Stuart king James I saw feast days like Christmas as an opportunity “for delighting the people with publicke spectacles and for merriment,” which is to say, a majestic, opulent flex of royal power. For the monarch’s highest-profile subjects, their courtiers, the holiday was an opportunity to curry favor, often by just handing over money to the sovereign. (Apparently, one year Elizabeth I’s archbishops gave her £40 worth of gold, while lower-ranking peers handed over £20.)

During the English Civil War, Christmas became a bone of contention between the royalists loyal to Charles I and his descendants and his enemies, the Puritans, who disapproved of the holiday on religious grounds. (The Puritans in New England banned the holiday, which might seem counterintuitive to contemporary readers accustomed to “Merry Christmas” being a conservative talking point.) Flanders explained that “Some… especially those who had supported the monarchy, began to develop an interest in what they identified as special Christmas observances, things that people did at that time of year and no other, the power of ritual making a political as well as a religious point.”

By the 1830s, when Victoria was crowned, the United Kingdom was a constitutional monarchy and the days of ostentatious displays of divine right were over. But the holiday was morphing into an increasingly family-centered occasion, as Victoria and her consort Albert reimagined themselves as heads of a “royal family,” in keeping with the 19th century’s elevation of the immediate nuclear family to a central, sacred place as the heart of the nation. The two phenomena dovetailed to give the English-speaking world one of its most iconic elements of Christmas: the tree. That’s thanks to an 1848 engraving of the couple standing next to a tabletop tree at Windsor in the Illustrated London News, which popularized the item, Flanders reported.

Similarly, the modern Windsors use the soft power of Christmas to reaffirm their own family dynasty. The monarch’s annual Christmas speech began in 1932, with Elizabeth’s grandfather George V launching it basically as a gimmick for the BBC’s new Empire Service, according to History Today. But it went over so well they’ve been doing it ever since, now via television; it’s yet another way that the queen maintains herself as a national fixture. She typically reflects on the year in non-confrontational ways, riffing on reconciliation for 2019: “It’s a timely reminder of what positive things can be achieved when people set aside past differences and come together in the spirit of friendship and reconciliation.”

Then, there’s the family’s walk to church on Christmas Day, which has become a major annual photo op. In 2017, it was a key part of introducing Meghan Markle as a member, stepping into a moment when gossip blogs worldwide are hungry for some low-stakes content like “Royal Family Christmas at Sandringham, 2017 vs. 2018” and “Why everyone is talking about this mom’s iPhone photo of the royals.”

The Windsors’ blending of public and private becomes particularly tricky when confronted with a family member who has been quarantined from the family business

This year, though, the usual warm-and-fuzzy narrative is more complicated, and it’s easy for the whole “royal family” schtick to blow up in their faces. What will they do with somebody like Prince Andrew, who’s been essentially fired as a “working” royal but remains a member of the family? The Windsors’ blending of public and private becomes particularly tricky when confronted with a family member who has been quarantined from the family business. Their solution this year was for Andrew to quietly attend an earlier service than the rest of his family, ensuring lots of smiling shots of the core family together, without the Duke of York in the background to complicate the image. Meanwhile, Prince George and Princess Charlotte joined the walk for the first time.

Pushing Andrew even further to the margins, the Windsors are wrapping up the year with a seasonal barrage, focusing attention on the people who are actually in line for the throne. Charles, William, and George all posed together with a table full of Christmas pudding ingredients. It wasn’t an intimate family photo, but rather a shoot for philanthropic purposes, in support of an initiative by the Royal British Legion. “The Queen, The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Cambridge and Prince George, joined forces to prepare special Royal British Legion Christmas puddings at Buckingham Palace this week,” the caption explained, with four people who have never had to cook in their lives gathered to bake. They followed with a behind-the-scenes video of the foursome, including the Queen and Charles ducking out of George’s way.

Nor is Andrew the sum total of their problems, either. Meghan and Harry’s rocky relationship with the press is intrinsically tied up with their relationship with Will and Kate, a couple who has to keep their public image intact for the sake of the monarchy. If the public thinks they’re in a feud with Will and Kate, that drags the Cambridges into a story about interpersonal drama rather than protecting them as the above-the-fray face of the Crown’s future. There were the unsubstantiated rumors that Will stepped out on Kate, which never broke through into the British tabloids (probably because they were afraid of being sued out of existence) but did make it onto the cover of In Touch magazine here in the United States, after going viral on Twitter.

Meghan and Harry, meanwhile, have stepped back from the royal media circus entirely, other than some Instagram posts and a video of Harry in character as Santa for a children’s charity. They are in Canada, keeping a comparatively low profile, skipping all the big family photo ops. Tabloids took notice when the Queen’s desk—always staged for her televised Christmas speech with very deliberate photos—didn’t include any pictures of the Sussex family. But rather than a snub, their receding into the background matches both their own purposes and the messaging goals of the monarchy, emphasizing the direct heirs.

This is the context for the Will and Kate’s utterly charming appearance on A Berry Royal Christmas, which shows the British icon joining forces with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to make a special thank-you meal for charity workers who’ll be on duty over the holiday. It was very casual and cozy: Will made Yorkshire Gold tea with Mary in a small office kitchen with a little electric kettle; Kate—having already done a public appearance involving Christmas trees and small children—talked about the playground she helped build for a Royal Horticultural Society show. Now Kate’s on the cover of US Weekly, looking like some Sugar Plum Fairy with “Inside Her Magical World” scrawled underneath.

Of course, the informality always has the potential to backfire, too: Gossip sites around the world zeroed in on Kate’s seeming to shrug off Will’s hand during the special. “Sources directly connected to Will and Kate insist there’s been no falling out between the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge… this after signs of friction in their marriage,” TMZ reported afterward. Some studied coziness is a time-honored way for the royals to connect with their public, but it’s not without its risks.

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