For decades, Brits have settled down after a Christmas dinner of turkey, roast potatoes, and Brussels sprouts to watch “the Queen’s speech.”
But this year, there will be a tinge of sadness as the royal Christmas message is beamed into tinsel-covered living rooms across the country.
For it will no longer be Queen Elizabeth II sitting behind a desk crowded with family photographs beneath a glittering Christmas tree. In her place will be King Charles III, who will deliver the first Christmas message of his reign.
The King’s words will be carefully parsed by the British media, who are fond of calling on “royal experts” to decode the subtle signals allegedly sent by the choice of photos and regal bling.
But Britain’s Christians will be waiting to see whether the new King follows his mother in using the broadcast to speak about his faith. While that might seem like a small thing, many found the Queen’s gentle but clear expressions of belief uplifting. Through her Christmas broadcasts, she built on her role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, addressing an audience that extended far beyond the Anglican Communion.
No doubt King Charles will put his own mark on a Christmas tradition that dates back almost a century. One possible theme to look out for: the plight of persecuted religious minorities — a cause he has championed in recent years.
How will his message measure up to those of past monarchs? The Pillar takes a look at some of history’s most stirring and influential royal Christmas broadcasts.
The first royal Christmas message was delivered by King George V, Elizabeth II’s grandfather. But he didn’t write it. It was prepared by Rudyard Kipling, perhaps best known for “The Jungle Book” and the poem “If—”.
When the King was first asked to make a Christmas broadcast, back in 1923 by BBC founder John Reith, he refused. But after years of cajoling, he finally agreed. To reduce his anxiety, he recorded it in a small room beneath the stairs at Sandringham House, a royal residence in Norfolk.
His speech began, “Through one of the marvels of modern science, I am enabled, this Christmas Day, to speak to all my peoples throughout the Empire,” and included a loud clearing of the royal throat.
The address — aired at 3 p.m. GMT, when the maximum number of subjects of the British Empire were thought to be awake — was widely acclaimed. The King, whose hands shook throughout the broadcast, was less enthused, reportedly saying that “his nerves in preparation for the event quite ruined his Christmas.”
King George VI probably dreaded delivering his first Christmas broadcast even more than his late father, thanks to his stammer (which inspired the Oscar-winning movie “The King’s Speech”).
But with the help of frequent pauses, he successfully completed the verbal obstacle course.
Speaking shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, which would go on to claim more than 40 million lives, George VI expressed the conviction that “the cause which binds together my peoples and our gallant and faithful Allies is the cause of Christian civilization.”
In his 1939 message, which inspired a nation steeling itself for another long war, he quoted lines from the then-obscure poem “God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins:
“I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.’”
The King concluded: “And may that Almighty hand guide and uphold us all.”
Following lung surgery, George VI delivered his 1951 Christmas message in a tired, rasping voice.
“I myself have every cause for deep thankfulness,” he said, “for not only – by the grace of God and through the faithful skill of my doctors, surgeons and nurses – have I come through my illness, but I have learned once again that it is in bad times that we value most highly the support and sympathy of our friends.”
The address was aired just weeks before the King’s death at the age of 56.
Queen Elizabeth recorded her first Christmas message seated at the same chair and desk used by her father and grandfather.
“Each Christmas, at this time, my beloved father broadcast a message to his people in all parts of the world. Today I am doing this to you, who are now my people,” she said.
“As he used to do, I am speaking to you from my own home, where I am spending Christmas with my family; and let me say at once how I hope that your children are enjoying themselves as much as mine are on a day which is especially the children’s festival, kept in honor of the Child born at Bethlehem nearly 2,000 years ago.”
Looking ahead to her coronation on June 2, 1953, she asked listeners, “whatever your religion may be, to pray for me on that day — to pray that God may give me wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making, and that I may faithfully serve Him and you, all the days of my life.”
Elizabeth II’s 1957 Christmas message was notable not only because it was the first to be broadcast on television. It was also the first to feature chit-chat between American police officers.
The Associated Press noted at the time that, due to freak climatic conditions, snippets of U.S. police radio randomly interrupted British television programs.
“On Christmas,” it reported, “right in the middle of Queen Elizabeth’s holiday broadcast, some listeners caught the plaintive voice of a hungry American cop: ‘Joe,’ the voice barged into the Queen’s broadcast, ‘I’m gonna grab a quick coffee.’ Just that. And then the Queen came back.”
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Decades before Pope Francis took up the theme of fraternity in his encyclical Fratelli tutti, Queen Elizabeth II dedicated her 1968 Christmas message to the topic of brotherhood.
Speaking months after the assassination of U.S. Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King, she said: “Christmas is a Christian festival which celebrates the birth of the Prince of Peace. At times it is almost hidden by the merry-making and tinsel, but the essential message of Christmas is still that we all belong to the great brotherhood of man.”
Elizabeth II spoke “more directly and more personally” about her Christian faith than usual in her message at the end of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.
After a visual montage of the year that included her Oct. 17 meeting with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, she said: “For me, the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.”
Citing a much-loved Anglican benediction, she added: “I believe that the Christian message, in the words of a familiar blessing, remains profoundly important to us all:
“Go forth into the world in peace,
be of good courage,
hold fast that which is good,
render to no man evil for evil,
strengthen the faint-hearted,
support the weak,
help the afflicted,
honor all men.”
In what would prove to be her final Christmas message, Queen Elizabeth spoke about her joy at seeing “the wonder of the festive season” anew through the eyes of her family’s youngest members.
“They teach us all a lesson — just as the Christmas story does — that in the birth of a child, there is a new dawn with endless potential,” she said.
“It is this simplicity of the Christmas story that makes it so universally appealing: simple happenings that formed the starting point of the life of Jesus — a man whose teachings have been handed down from generation to generation, and have been the bedrock of my faith. His birth marked a new beginning. As the carol says, ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’”