Everyone knows that Queen Elizabeth II's preferred place to spend Christmas is Sandringham, her private home in Norfolk that she inherited from her father, King George VI.
Dozens of family members gather for a gift exchange, a formal Christmas Eve dinner and the public walk to church (aka, the "ooh, nice coat!" parade) on Christmas morning, an annual opportunity photo opportunity for the rest of the world to check out who's walking with whom and how much the kids old enough for the trek have grown. In recent years the now 94-year-old queen has preferred being driven to the service, daughter-in-law Countess Sophie of Wessex scoring the seat of honor next to her in the Rolls, and her husband, Prince Philip, who turned 99 in June, skips it entirely in favor of resting up for the festivities.
But for the most part, the routine is set in stone.
This year, however, it's all off. The royals will spend Christmas the way they spent most of 2020—socially distanced from each other. Despite being able to see light at the end of the tunnel, the United Kingdom being the first country in the world to start a nation-wide rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine this past week and gatherings of up to three households getting the government's seal of approval to form a Christmas bubble, the Windsors and their 10 households will be playing it extra-safe.
That includes no trip to Sandringham for the first time in 33 years for the queen, who will remain at Windsor Castle—"the HMS Bubble," staffers have called it—for a quiet holiday season with Philip. It will be the first time since 1949, when Prince Charles was 13 months old and an only child, that they won't be with any of their four kids on Christmas.
Of course, there's no such thing as just the two of them, and numerous trusted employees will be there to ensure that they have a comfortable, festive-looking holiday (the grand 20-foot-high Norway spruce is on display and open to the public in St. George's Hall)—and to set up the video chats for checking in with their daughter and three sons, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Speaking of which, granddaughters Princess Eugenie and Zara Tindall are both pregnant (the latter news just revealed this week by Zara's husband, Mike Tindall, on The Good, the Bad and the Rugby podcast), so there are numerous reasons why the various households plan to not press their luck any further. Because they know that there's no royal exemption, Prince Charles having come down with the coronavirus in March not long after COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, while Prince William reportedly tested positive in April, despite being squirreled away at Anmer Hall with his own family.
Meanwhile, William, who just took a three-day, 1,250-mile goodwill rail trip around England, Scotland and Wales. with wife Kate Middleton on the Royal Train, has acknowledged that this is a Christmas like no other. He and Kate have skipped Sandringham a few times since getting married in 2011 to spend time with the Middleton side of the family, but this December seemingly would have been prime time for a grand royal reunion after a bollocks of a year. (Not least because of the bizarre end to 2019, which saw Prince Andrew stepping down as a senior royal amid a cloud of scandal and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle socially distancing themselves before that was even a thing.)
Instead, "It is so difficult," the Duke of Cambridge told a group of university students in Cardiff this week. "We are still trying to make plans. It's difficult to know what to do for the best."
A co-ed who heard what William had to say seemed to appreciate the rare royals-are-just-like-us moment, telling the press afterward, "They were trying like the rest of us to make Christmas plans with their family and still weren't 100 percent sure of what they were going to do or where they were going to be."
Adding a wrinkle into any possible planning ahead, Prince George and Princess Charlotte returned to in-person learning at Thomas's Battersea this fall—which is great for their parents, but complicates matters when it comes to possible exposure to COVID.
Kate and William did get to spend time with the queen—outdoors, in the Windsor Castle quad—on Tuesday to mark the conclusion of their charming but ultimately controversial royal tour (critics slammed the Cambridges for seemingly going against instructions to U.K. residents to avoid unnecessary travel and called the price tag "obscene," if it was anywhere in the ballpark of the roughly $30,000 it apparently costs anytime a royal travels on the nine-carriage train).
However, they were still received enthusiastically everywhere they went and plenty of fans loved that they made the rounds to recognize frontline workers all over Great Britain and boost morale—which, of course, is what they do, and why this was considered a work trip, which is allowed.
"The PM is delighted to see the warm reception the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have received on their hugely valuable train tour of England, Scotland and Wales," a spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose own battle with COVID landed him in intensive care earlier this year, told Britain's Independent last week. "The tour will be a welcome morale boost to frontline workers who have done so much during the pandemic."
In addition to the queen, Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla, Sophie and husband Prince Edward, and Princess Anne—all of whom switched their schedules to Zoom during quarantine and went back to in-person work this summer as soon as they were able—were all on hand along with William and Kate at Windsor Castle to personally thank more care workers, teachers and volunteers for their contributions during the pandemic, as well as listen to Christmas carols performed by the Salvation Army band.
"Bye, Gran!" William could be hearing calling to the queen as she made her way back inside the castle.
"The Queen was saying she was just so happy we were able to play some carols because she thinks this will be the only time she'll be able to hear carols," said Gillian Cotterill, Territorial Leader for the Salvation Army in the U.K. and Republic of Ireland, according to BBC News. "I did see the Queen mouthing some of the words—so that was nice."
So it's not as if no one has seen each other in months or is currently stuck at home (Kate and Will even rented a cottage on the Isle of Scilly, off the coast of Cornwall, for the kids' midterm break in October).
But they can't help but feel a bit somber, knowing there will be no big lunch at Buckingham Palace the week before Christmas, or any gathering whatsoever at Sandringham. Yet setting an example is part of their job description (most of the queen's kids understand that, as does future king William), so they are sticking to their plans to be of service and not stray too far outside the bounds of how most normal folks expect to celebrate this year, at least a far as crowd size goes.
What will be the same as always, is that everyone in the U.K. can tune in at 3 p.m. GMT on Dec. 25 to watch the queen's pre-recorded annual Christmas broadcast to the nation (and hey, we'll take one unspoiled tradition on the this side of the pond, too), which she has been giving since 1952.
The speech has been televised since 1957, minus 1969 when she skipped the ritual because a documentary called Royal Family had already aired over the summer and she felt the public had seen enough of them. Otherwise, the show has gone on through rain, shine or annus-horribilis-caliber scandal.
It's fair to say that sacrifice and toiling stoically through hardship will be major themes this year.
As for the expectant Eugenie and her husband Jack Brooksbank, who are reportedly living for the time being at Frogmore Cottage, Prince Harry's recently renovated but otherwise vacant home in Windsor, if they spend the holiday with anyone it'll be one or the other's immediate families. Jack's parents both survived bouts with COVID this summer, but while mom Nicola was never hospitalized, her husband George Brooksbank spent five weeks spent on a ventilator.
Eugenie took to social media in June to thank the tireless teams at two hospitals and a rehabilitation facility for "saving my father in law."
Then there could always be a meal shared with father Prince Andrew and mother Sarah Ferguson, long divorced but amiably cohabitating at Royal Lodge, and her sister Princess Beatrice.
Bea could opt, though, for spending her first Christmas as a married woman with just her husband, Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi, the couple having quietly tied the knot in a tiny July ceremony after COVID put an end to any plans for a small-but-grand-enough royal wedding in May.
Zara and Mike Tindall, who are also usually part of the Sandringham bunch, rode out the quarantine (at times quite literally for the untitled equestrienne) with daughters Mia and Lena at their home at Gatcombe Park, Zara's mother Princess Anne's home in Gloucestershire, which she's shared with second husband Timothy Laurence since 1992. Anne's son, Peter Phillips, who separated from wife Autumn Phillips earlier this year, also lives on the 730-acre estate and his daughters Savannah and Isla go back and forth between their parents' houses. The sisters and cousin Mia are all back in school, too, like George and Charlotte, so they'll still have to take added precautions if they hope to form a Christmas bubble.
But at least Anne's heirs are already in the neighborhood, senses of humor fully intact.
Regarding possible names for their incoming third child, Mike joked on the podcast, "We're not sure what to do, you know, Covie, or Covina? I don't now where to go with the names." Asked how his wife was doing, he shared, "Zed is very good, always careful because of things that happened in the past, and yeah, really looking forward to it." (Zara had two miscarriages between the births of her daughters.)
"I'd like a boy this time," the former rugby player mused. "I've got two girls, I would like a boy." He added quickly, "But, I will love it, whether a boy or a girl—but please be a boy!"
Regardless, 6-year-old Mia "has been requesting another sister or brother, so we've hopefully fulfilled that role for her," Mike added. "She just wants something different now. Lena's growing up, she's 2 1/2 now, she wants someone younger to play with and dress up."
His mates noting what a "very, very good piece of news" this was to cap off this largely wretched year, Mike agreed, "It's a good end."
And speaking of bouncing baby boys, 19-month-old Archie Harrison will be spending Christmas in California with his parents—because why, even if times were normal, would Harry and Meghan (who were in Canada at this time last year) go anywhere else when the mercury is still climbing into the 70s every day and Meghan's mom, Doria Ragland, lives just an hour away from their spacious new Montecito digs?
"Yeah, it's good to be home," Meghan acknowledged in an August sit-down with The 19th co-founder Emily Ramshaw. She may have been talking about being able to use her voice as an advocate for women's rights and social justice for the first time since coupling up with her prince, but surely the feeling extends to celebrating the holidays in her home state.
They've already got their tree, a worker at the lot having spilled the pine-scented beans on Twitter.
But though the Sussexes are an ocean away starting their own traditions, as they settle into their new lives as activists and content producers for Netflix, surely this Christmas season they'll still crank up the FaceTime for a chat with Harry's family back in Britain. Her Majesty Queen Gran will be expecting his call.
And as a Buckingham Palace spokesman informed the press in announcing the monarch's 2020 Christmas plans, "Like everyone they hope things will get back to normal in 2021."
This story was originally published on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020 at 12 a.m. PT.