Canadian Royal Heritage Trust

A National Educational Charity

Christmas and Royalty


by Garry Toffoli


The Origins of Christmas

Royal associations with Christmas can perhaps be put into two categories. For Christians, kingship is a secular reflection of divine authority, so the imagery of kingship is found in references to Jesus. Christians mark the birth of the King of Kings. This concept, of course, is not unique to Christian kingship as all the major monarchical traditions of the world have a religious basis, regardless of the religion. The second category of royal associations is the role various sovereigns have played in creating or developing Christmas traditions.

First a little bit about the origins of the Christmas season and some of the terms used. Winter celebrations are found in almost all societies and religions on the earth. In the Roman world there was Saturnalia in honour of the God of Plenty. In AD 274 the Emperor Aurelian established the birthday of the unconquered sun, “natalis solis invicti’ on the 25th December. The imagery was that in the days following the winter solstice the sun began to rise higher in the sky and the days started to get longer again – thus the unconquered sun.

The Teutonic and Celtic world celebrated “Yule” in December, which may derive from old Norse “jol” meaning feasting or revellery, or, in the opinion of some, from the root of the word meaning wheel – that is marking the complete revolution of the seasons. In any event “Yule” as a name has been retained in English for the Christmas season. “Nowell” of course comes from the French “Noël”, which itself derives from the Latin “natalis” becoming “na’al” in the Gaullish tongue.

Christianity took the existing Roman winter celebration to celebrate the historical reality of Christ’s birth. The actual day is not generally agreed upon, some arguing for autumn, some for May and some believing that December is in fact correct. Many also maintain that the day of the 25th is historically correct. But whatever is true, the 25th December has been adopted universally as the date for celebration as, in a secular fashion, the Queen’s official birthday is no less significant for being celebrated by Canadians on a selected day in May rather than on the actual day of Her Majesty’s birth.


Early Royal Christmases

The association between church and state was much closer in mediaeval days than is the case today, so secular events were often scheduled to coincide with religious holidays. There are still, of course, vestiges of this in the modern world, such as the opening of the courts in England and Ontario near Michaelmas. Christmas, being one of the most important religious times of the year, was often the occasion for great secular celebrations. The reason for this was the religious nature of state events, and the desire of various kings to associate themselves with Christ. The following examples perhaps illustrate this royal tendency:

King Aethelbert of Kent (who was married to a Christian) was converted by St Augustine, and assigned the missionaries a headquarters at Canterbury, the beginnings of Canterbury Cathedral. On Christmas Day 597, 10,000 people were baptised “at the wish” of King Aethelbert. On Christmas day in the year 800, Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. In 1066 William the Conqueror followed that lead and was also crowned on Christmas Day. This was to assert the legitimacy of his reign over the unwilling populace of England.

The year before, in 1065, Edward the Confessor had planned the consecration of Westminster Abbey for Christmas Day, but his illness forced a postponement until the 28th of December (still within Christmastide). The arms of the Abbey feature the purported arms of Edward. Edward himself died eight days later on the 5th January, 1066 (also within Christmastide). Two other kings were also crowned near Christmas – Stephen on the 26th December (St Stephen’s Day) in 1135, and Henry II on the 19th December (the Sunday before Christmas) in 1154. This royal association with, or desire to associate great figures with, Christmas is also reflected in the legend that Robin Hood, the defender of the rights of King Richard the Lion Heart, died on Christmas Eve, 1297.

Christmas was a traditional time for the meeting of the King’s Great Council, and for making great decisions of state. It was at the Christmas council in 1085 that the Doomsday Book was decided upon. During the festivities of 1346 Edward III created the Order of the Garter, the greatest of the Sovereign’s orders. This was appropriate since, according to legend, King Arthur’s Round Table of knights (upon which the Garter is based) held a great meeting in York at Christmas after defeating the Saxons. Even today there are special “collar days” when members of the Queen’s orders of chivalry wear their gold collars instead of the ribands. Two of these days are Christmas Day and The Epiphany.

One of our kings even left us with two Christmas carols or, more correctly, one carol and, reportedly, the tune that is used for the second. The king was Henry VIII and the carol he wrote was “Green growth the holly, so doth the ivy”. The more familiar carol is based on “Greensleeves”, which the king is thought to have composed. That carol is “What Child Is This?”


The Lord of Misrule

There is one custom of Christmas that had considerable royal overtones but alas is no more. This was the Lord of Misrule, who might be called a parody of the king. This tradition perhaps had its roots in the Roman Saturnalia practices of dressing up and turning social relations upside-down.

Ironically the Lord of Misrule, who became an important figure in British social life, was popular at a time when kings were centralising power. The kings in fact authorised the “Lord” and paid him out of official funds to ridicule, at least superficially, their authority. It was the Tudor King Henry VII who confirmed the prestige and power of the Lord of Misrule.

The Lord’s powers were, within the realm of festivities, absolute and fixed by conventions that had the force of law and more. Basically, his duties were to invert ordinary usage for the period of Christmas – the twelve days from Christmas day to Twelfth Night. These could take any manner that appealed to his impudence and ingenuity, so long as it amused the spectators.

The Lord of Misrule and the celebrations he presided over died with Cromwell and did not return to court with the restoration. As the historian Michael Harrison explained,

“Kings could permit, and even encourage, a parody of royalty so long as royalty remained invulnerable as an idea; as a social concept.

“In the past no one had doubted the idea of kingship, and no king had doubted it himself. Kings had been killed, yes. Deposed and killed; even imprisoned and subjected to the most degrading indignities. But all these things had been offered to persons: not to the Crown itself, and all that it stood for …

“There was a general feeling, after the Restoration, that kingship had been dealt so dangerous a blow by Cromwell that it might not be able to withstand further corrosive assaults of laughter and parody.

“Thus the Lord of Misrule’s long life came to an end. He had had the misfortune to be violently attacked by the Puritans and put quietly away by the Royalists. No custom could have been expected to survive attack by both sections of the nation.”

The Lord of Misrule did survive in a few rare cases until the late 19th Century, Vestiges of his character also survive today in King Neptune on ships crossing the equator, who initiates those crossing for the first time. In some units of the British and Canadian armed forces (such as the Governor General’s Horse Guards in Toronto) officers serve non-commissioned members at Christmas banquets. And, finally, the Lord of Misrule is present in spirit in the paper crowns still worn by people at Christmas and New Year’s dinners after they have broken open the crackers.


The Abolition of Christmas

Almost everyone knows the children’s story called “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”. Well, there really was a Grinch but his name was Oliver Cromwell.

The Puritan Roundheads led by Cromwell had long opposed Christmas as a pagan celebration and, according to historian Michael Harrison,

“It is not easy now to tell whether the Puritans hated Christmas because the feast made most people a little happier then than they were at other times, or because Christmas had been associated in their minds with the Court, and so with the extravagance that they had made it their business to attack.

“But it is clear enough that they added Christmas very early to their lists of dislikes, and their criticism of the Nativity assumed the bitterest quality as the quarrel between King and Parliament mounted to its climax.”

The Roundheads gained power even before their murder of Charles I in 1649 and on 3rd June 1646 what was left of Parliament officially outlawed Christmas. As December 25th neared, town criers were sent ‘round to remind people that celebrations were now forbidden and that markets were to be kept open. In Canterbury the people rioted in opposition and the town crier and mayor were assaulted. One Roundhead parliamentarian noted bitterly, “the people of England do hate to be reformed”. Parliament consistently sat on Christmas Day from 1649 to 1656 to set an example, but one government newspaper editor was scandalised that “hardly forty shops were open” within the boundaries of London on Christmas Day.

Under Cromwell Christmas did not entirely disappear but went underground and its celebration became a symbol of resistance to the totalitarian regime. Pamphlets such as “The Vindication of Father Christmas” published in 1653 appeared.

Government under Cromwell made the people long for the return of the rightful ruler, King Charles II. Following Cromwell’s death and his son Richard’s ineffective rule, the King returned from exile and with him came Father Christmas. A song of the day expressed the regained happiness:

Then here’s a health to Charles our King, throughout the world admir’d;

Let us his great applauses sing, that we so much desir’d,

And wisht amongst us for to Reign, when Oliver rul’d here:

But since he’s home return’d again, come fill some Christmas cheer!

These Holidays we’ll briskly drink, all mirth we will devise,

No Treason we will speak or think, then bring us brave minc’d Pies:

Roast Beef and brave Plum-Porridge, our loyal hearts to cheer:

Then prithee make no more ado, but bring us Christmas cheer!


King George II and Handel’s Messiah

One of the annual customs of Christmas in Toronto, or more accurately, of the Advent Season preceding Christmas, is the performance of George Frederick Handel’s “Messiah” by the Toronto Symphony and the Mendelssohn Choir. Traditionally this was performed at Massey Hall and now is performed at Roy Thomson Hall. Handel actually composed “Messiah” in just twenty-one days.

There is a famous tradition at these performances that has a royal origin. In 1743, King George II attended a performance of “Messiah”. He was so moved by the majesty of the Hallelujah Chorus that he suddenly rose to his feet and remained standing until it was finished. The rest of the audience of course stood when the King did. And audiences to this day have continued the practice begun by His Majesty King George II.

George II was Handel’s patron and the composer wrote some of his finest works for the Sovereign, such as “Zadok the Priest”, the “Royal Fireworks Music” and the “Water Music”. These are well known to Canadians, as is a Christmas carol that many believe was composed by Handel, and, if not, was certainly inspired by him.  It clearly has the “sound” of Handel – “Joy To The World”.


The Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree is so much a part of our Christmas celebrations that it is hard to think of Christmas without it. But it is in fact a fairly recent addition to the British and Canadian celebrations. The custom of the Christmas tree is however quite old, though associated with Germany. The use of plants, especially evergreens, and lights with winter festivals can also be traced to antiquity.

The first modern mention of the custom is found in the writings of an anonymous Strasbourg citizen in 1605, “At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlours at Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.”

The first mention of the Christmas tree in England is in Court and Private Life in the Time of Queen Charlotte, being the Journals of Mrs Papendiek – “This Christmas, Mrs Papendiek proposed an illuminated tree, according to the German fashion”.

A.J. Kempe in 1836 noted, “We remember a German of the household of the late Queen Caroline making what he termed a Christmas-tree for a juvenile party at that festive season. The tree was a branch of some evergreen fastened to a board. Its boughs bent under the weight of gilt oranges, almonds, etc. and under it was a neat model of a farm house, surrounded by figures of animals, etc., and all due accompaniments.”

Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, and Queen Caroline, the wife of King George IV, were Germans, as of course were the Hanoverians themselves originally. But, although they brought the Christmas tree to England through their royal courts, the fashion did not really take hold.

It was Prince Albert, who introduced the tree for Christmas festivities at WindsorCastle, who made it a permanent feature of British Christmases. He wrote to his father “This is the dear Christmas Eve, on which I have so often listened with impatience for your step, which was to usher us into the presents-room. Today I have two children of my own to give presents to, who, they know not why, are full of happy wonder at the German Christmas-tree and its radiant candles”. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert set a model for the life of their subjects and from about 1848 the custom of the tree began to grow in popularity among Queen Victoria’s subjects throughout the world as news of the Windsor-style Christmas spread, especially through a picture of the Royal Family around a Christmas tree that appeared in the Illustrated London News. In Canada the Christmas tree had been introduced by German settlers, but its general popularity can also be traced to the influence of Prince Albert and the publicity surrounding the picture, which was published in North America as well as in Great Britain. In the United States the use of the Christmas tree also flourished after the picture appeared but Americans, not wishing to admit they were copying British royalty, published the picture of the Royal Family unchanged but with a false caption saying it was the American president with his wife and children at the White House. So many Americans came to believe that the White House introduced the Christmas tree to North America that it became an acceptable “American” invention.


The Festival of Lights

Festivals of lights, such as Toronto’s Cavalcade of Lights, are not distinctly royal, but there is a royal connection in London. On Regent Street a festival of lights is staged every year beginning in mid-November. To launch the festival a member of the Royal Family is invited to turn on the lights. An example of a special occasion a quarter century ago was in 1982 when, following his return from the Falklands War, the honour was given to His Royal Highness The Prince Andrew, now the Duke of York.

The association of lights with the Christmas season goes back to the beginnings of the celebration, relating to both the Star of Bethlehem and to the infant Jesus as the light to the world. But the association of lights with this time of year also predates Christianity and is found in a number of other religions. The Jewish celebration of Chanukah, which is held in December, commemorates the Dedication of the Temple. Each of the seven candles on the candelabrum or menorah are lit on successive days until all are burning in remembrance of the oil from the Temple miraculously burning for seven days though there was only enough oil for one day. Candelabra for Chanukah are placed in front of OldCity Hall and Queen’s Park in December as part of Toronto’s seasonal festivities.

The use of lights at Christmas probably draws upon Chanukah. In German Christmas is known as “Weihnacht” or “Night of the Dedication”, which, some scholars maintain, derives from Chanukah – the Dedication of the Temple.The


The Queen’s Christmas Message

Every Christmas millions of families throughout the Commonwealth, indeed throughout the world, turn on their television sets, or now log onto the Internet, and welcome the Queen into their homes. It is the Queen’s annual Christmas message that is being broadcast and the emphasis is very much on the Commonwealth role of Her Majesty. Indeed some British politicians have even complained from time to time that there is too great an emphasis on the Commonwealth.

Certainly one of the charms of Christmas has been the contributions of different generations to building the traditions of the season. The Sovereign’s Christmas message was very much a 20th Century addition.

King George V had first been asked to present a message to his people by radio in 1923, and his voice was heard thirteen times after 1924, giving speeches at formal public events that were broadcast, but a personal address to his people was different. It was not until a royal visit to the BBC headquarters in July 1932 that the King convinced himself to experiment with the new technology. He agreed to give a broadcast that year six days after the BBC began Empire service on 19th December.

The reaction from the people was emotional. The Spectator, referring to the King clearing his throat after beginning, said, “A king who reads a message into a microphone from a manuscript may be just a king; a king who coughs is a fellow human being”. Veteran BBC announcer Tom Fleming wrote, “The sound of a gruff, unaffected voice speaking kindly and unpretentious words to an expectant audience of millions, much in the manner of a revered grandfather addressing his assembled family, and doing so at the essentially family festival of Christmas, was a new experience, which few who shared it were every likely to forget”. Among those influenced by the King was the new American president, Franklin Roosevelt, who emulated the King’s technique in his “fireside chats” to Americans.

George V maintained the Christmas message for the rest of his reign but there was no message in 1936, the year of the three kings – with the death of King George V on 20th January and the abdication of King Edward VIII and accession of King George VI, which took place on 11th December, just two weeks before Christmas. The new king however did broadcast to the Empire on the 12th December following his accession. In 1937 King George VI broadcast to his people on Christmas but did not plan to do so on an annual basis, telling his subjects that, “I cannot aspire to take his [King George V’s] place – nor do I think that you would wish me to carry on, unvaried, a tradition so personal to him”. There was no broadcast in 1938. With the start of the War in 1939 the King decided he must speak live to his people once again and that Christmas, in the dark and uncertain days of a war for survival, he made the radio broadcast his own and concluded with the now famous words from a poem sent to him: “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 first Christmas broadcast by Her Majesty was in 1952, six months before her Coronation. Referring to that coming event she said to her people, “You will be keeping it as a holiday; but I want to ask you all, 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”.

The Queen has continued the tradition of a Christmas broadcast every year except 1969 when a written message was given and the precedent-breaking film The Royal Family, presenting an intimate view of the Queen and her family, was shown instead on Christmas Day. The other landmarks during the Queen’s reign were the first Christmas broadcast from outside the United Kingdom (New Zealand in 1953); the switch to television in 1957 after her successful first television appearance in Canada earlier in the year; the change from live to pre-recorded messages, which began in 1959 when Her Majesty was expecting her third child, Prince Andrew; and the 21st Century use of the Internet.


The Story of King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas, through the Christmas carol, is probably one of the most famous kings associated with Christmas in the English-speaking world. Unfortunately he was not actually a king. He was in fact a Bohemian duke named Wentzel (or Wenceslas) born in the year 908. Bohemia is part of what is now the Czech Republic, but at that time had just emerged from paganism. Wenceslas had been converted to Christianity by his paternal grandmother and during his own lifetime was known for his devotedness and was even credited with the power to work miracles. He was canonised after his death.

Wenceslas was not concerned with worldly ambitions and refused the crown of Bohemia that was offered to him by Emperor Otto I, preferring to remain a duke. Thus he was never King Wenceslas. Because of his lack of drive he was murdered at the age of 26 by his ambitious mother Drahomira and his brother Boleslav.

That is the basic story of Wenceslas, but how did a Bohemian saint become the subject of an English carol – and it must be realised that it is an original English carol, not a translated Bohemian carol? The evidence is not clear. The tune is traditional and, according to the “Oxford Book of Carols”, the words of the carol were written in 1853 by J.M. Neale. In The Story of Christmas though, historian Michael Harrison suggests a possible reason for the English interest in Wenceslas that goes back much further. In 1613 Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of King James I, was married to Frederick V, the Elector Palatine who became King of Bohemia in 1619, and she is known to history as “The Winter Queen” because Frederick V lost his Bohemian throne after only one winter. British soldiers were sent to Bohemia to accompany Elizabeth and, according to Harrison, may have brought back a hymn in honour of the saint from her adopted land, which became the source of the present carol.

Another royal connection is that Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Prince Harry of Wales and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York are direct descendants of Boleslav and Drahomira through their mothers, which, more to their credit, makes St Wenceslas their ancestral uncle. The Feast of Stephen referred to in the carol is also known in the English world as Boxing Day, the day when employers give Christmas boxes (or presents) to their employees, servants or tradesmen, who also often get the day off after having looked after their employers on Christmas Day. This tradition also seems to be incorporated into the carol, which was written in the Victorian era when Boxing Day was well established. The carol transforms the mediaeval Bohemian Wenceslas into a good English Victorian gentleman looking after his people by taking presents to them on St Stephen’s (Boxing) Day as a model for the listener (the page?) to follow.


The New Year’s Levee

Christmas time being an occasion for celebrating, it is natural that in Canada the Queen’s representatives take a lead in this field. For several generations Christmas parties have been given at Rideau Hall for children.

A distinctly Canadian tradition in the Christmas season though is the series of New Year’s Levees held by the Queen’s representatives in Ottawa and the provincial capitals. Levees are of course not unique to Canada and come to North America through both our British and French heritage.

The term literally refers to “rising up from bed” which in the case of the French Sovereigns was a very public occasion with privileged courtiers in attendance. King Louis XIV probably developed the levee to its most elaborate form. The concept of levees then evolved to mean receptions where people were received by the King, and this was common in both Britain and France.

In Quebec the French governors developed a tradition of greeting people from the door of their residence, now the site of the Chateau Frontenac, on 1st January to start the New Year. This practice, also known as a levee, was maintained by the British governors after Quebec passed to King George III. From Quebec the custom spread to other provinces and it is now a feature of Canadian New Years for lieutenant-governors to hold public receptions, fortunately indoors. In fact the practice has even spread to the mayors of various municipalities and the heads of societies.

In Ottawa unfortunately Jules Leger, when Governor-General, did not wish to be in Ottawa on the 1st January so, in the 1970s, the Levee was postponed to later in the month and it has not been restored to its proper date. The Ontario Levee is held in the Lieutenant-Governor’s suite at Queen’s Park one year and in another city the next year. Formerly Militia and public officials were received first and the public at a later time, but John Aird changed the procedures in the 1980s so that there is now one reception. And it was moved from the morning to the afternoon in the last decade. It is a chance for the Queen, through her representative, and her people to celebrate together in this festive season.



Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, celebrates the manifestation of the Christ-child to the Magi – the three Kings of Orient. “Epiphany” is the Greek word meaning “manifestation”. The Kings Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar (not actually named in the Bible nor referred to as “Kings” but given the names and status by tradition) brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for Christ. Their arrival indicated that the Messiah had come for the whole world, including the Gentiles, and that Christ was the King of Kings. The WesternChurch chose the 6th January to celebrate the arrival of the Magi, although when they actually arrived following the birth is also not recorded in the Bible.

Kings throughout Europe have followed the example of the Magi and offered similar gifts to Christ on the Epiphany. In England the Sovereigns did this in person until the accession of the Protestant Hanoverian Kings. Since then the Epiphany Service has still been held each year at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, but with the Sovereign represented by two Gentlemen Ushers. Since the Sovereign is considered to be present, the Yeomen of the Guard and the Chapel Royal Choir are in attendance.

The following description of the service, which is open to the public, is given in the book Ritual of Royalty:

“Today, as in previous centuries, the gifts offered by the Queen at the Epiphany Service are the traditional ones of gold, frankincense and myrrh. One of the Gentlemen Ushers chosen to represent the Queen carries the gold, in the form of twenty-five gold sovereigns, on a silver gilt salver like the one used to carry the Maundy money. On a similar salver the second Gentleman Usher carries the frankincense and myrrh.  Then, escorted by three Yeomen of the Guard, and preceded by the Serjeant of the Vestry carrying a silver gilt wand of office, the Gentlemen Ushers take the offerings to the altar where they bow three times (three being one of the symbolic numbers in Christianity) and place the gifts on an alms dish carried by the Sub-Dean.

“The offerings are dedicated by the Dean of the Chapels Royal who is always, ex-officio, the Bishop of London. The whole ceremony takes place within the framework of an Anglican Holy Communion service.

“After the service the twenty-five sovereigns are returned to the Bank of England which supplied the gold. The cash they give in return is given towards charities connected with the Chapel Royal. The frankincense is given by the Chapel Royal to an Anglican church which uses incense and the myrrh is given to Nashdom Abbey, where it is also used to make incense.”


The Royal Family’s Christmas

How do the Royal Family themselves celebrate Christmas? The late Duke of Windsor described it as “Dickens in a Cartier setting”. Royal Christmases are not lush but they are stylish. The setting is traditionally either WindsorCastle or Sandringham.

Until 1964 the festivities took place each year at Sandringham, the Queen’s personal home in Norfolk. But in that year there were four royal births – Prince Edward, Lady Helen, Lady Sarah and James Ogilvy – and it was felt that there was more room to put everybody up at WindsorCastle. Also it was much easier for everybody to travel for half-an-hour down the road to Windsor than for hours to Norfolk. In 1988 the celebrations were switched back to Sandringham when WindsorCastle was being rewired and have remained there since.

The pattern at royal Christmases is to open the presents on Christmas Eve, attend church Christmas morning, and have the major dinner at noon or early afternoon, followed by watching the Queen’s message broadcast in the afternoon. Of course there is a Christmas tree and an old tradition from the reign of King Charles II was revived by the Queen – decorating the royal home with sprays of white thorn blossoms from the abbey town of Glastonbury. According to legend St Joseph of Arimathea sailed from the Holy land and brought Christianity to England. When he landed he stuck his thorn staff into English soil, it took root and blossomed. It is claimed to be from the descendant of that original thorn bush that the Queen receives the white thorn blossoms before each Christmas to decorate the royal Christmas tree as a symbol of unity with the Holy Land.

A journalist writing about royal Christmases once tackled a very popular question – “What is the Queen’s favourite carol?” He said he knew but he would not let on what it is, quoting one courtier who warned him, “If you give the secret away, the Queen would never hear any of the others”.


Copyright © 2013 Garry Toffoli