Tell Me About…the Christmas Broadcast

At 3pm on 25th December, millions across the world take 10 minutes out of their celebrations to watch The Queen’s speech – her annual Christmas Day message.

It acts as a point of reflection over the last year, referencing current issues in society which have affected the world and the Head of State personally. There is usually a religious theme or message at its core, since Elizabeth II is Head of the Church of England and a devout Christian.

The Christmas Broadcast has become a key part of Christmas Day festivities for many across the Commonwealth and a firm royal tradition – but how did it tradition start and shape it into a modern-day staple?

The beginnings of the Christmas Broadcast

The first Christmas Broadcast was delivered by George V in 1932. It came to fruition after Sir John Reith, the founder of the BBC, wanted to introduce the Empire Service to reach the corners of the British Empire, which continues today as the BBC World Service.

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His speech was written by none other than Rudyard Kipling, but the BBC had been trying to get the King to agree to the speech for a number of years as wireless radio became more popular.

In the December of 1932, the King gave his address from Sandringham, which today is The Queen’s retreat during the colder months. Two rooms in were converted into temporary broadcasting studio, but the speech itself was recorded in a cupboard! This helped with dulling the background sounds a microphone would pick up, but of course the official photo shows George V seated at a table in front of a microphone.

The message, which lasted under a minute, was aired at 3pm, as it acted as the best way to reach the Commonwealth in short waves from the transmitters in the UK. It received an audience of 20 million.

The King opened the message: “Through one of the marvels of modern science, I am enabled, this Christmas Day, to speak to all my peoples throughout the Empire. I take it as a good omen that Wireless should have reached its present perfection at a time when the Empire has been linked in closer union. For it offers us immense possibilities to make that union closer still.”

It is a reminder that while the Royals are never at the cutting edge of innovation, the institution of the British Monarchy can and does embrace change, even with a 1,000 year history of tradition to promote.

The reaction to the broadcast was hugely favourable, and the King was said to be ‘very pleased and much moved’ by the response. For many, this was the first time that they had heard their King speak, relying on portraits and news photography to get any idea of the man’s likeness.

George VI continued the tradition of the Christmas Day message, which his daughter, The Queen, has also taken on

Edward VIII never made a Christmas Broadcast because his reign lasted less than a year, but George VI continued the tradition in his own message, in December 1937; he thanked the nation and Empire for their support during the first year of his reign, having succeeded the December previously after the abdication.

His final Christmas message, however, in 1951, was during a period of illness (he had had his left lung removed that September) and so the message was pre-recorded.

The Queen’s Christmas message

The Queen made her first Christmas Broadcast in the December of 1952, the same year her father, King George VI, passed away. The Monarch spoke the importance of the Christmas Broadcast to her and her family, and said: “My Father, and my Grandfather before him, worked hard all their lives to unite our peoples ever more closely, and to maintain its ideals which were so near to their hearts. I shall strive to carry on their work.”

The Queen during her Christmas Broadcast throughout the years. (Royal Family/Twitter)

In 1953, she delivered the message from Government House in Auckland, New Zealand, whilst on tour there.

The first televised message was broadcast live in 1957 from Sandringham. The development has allowed viewers to see The Queen in her own residences, decorated for Christmas like many homes across the world. The holly in front of her on the desk in 1957 hid a microphone!

Throughout her reign The Queen has given a message to the Commonwealth every year except one for in 1969, because a repeat of the documentary Royal Family was already in place for the festive period. Instead, a printed version was put into the newspapers for subjects to read.

Nowadays, the message is recorded ahead of time and the set up usually reflects her message. For example, the photos that can be seen on the desk or in the background usually reinforce the idea of heritage and continuity, and often acknowledge big recent family events such as weddings or births.

Some analysis of the messages shows that ‘Commonwealth’ is the most frequently mentioned word in the seven decades of her messages, followed by ‘God’, ‘Christian’, ‘Philip’, and ‘husband’, highlighting the religious and personal nature of the speech.

The location of the filming of the Christmas Broadcast is usually Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle, but in previous years recordings have also been made Sandringham. Modern day productions open with hymns, often sung by choristers of the Chapels Royal.

It is an annual opportunity to reach out to her people, and – particularly in recent times – offer the comfort of continuity and stability to the nation and Commonwealth as a familiar and trustworthy face.

The Christmas Broadcast in 2020 saw The Queen speak of her great pride in the ‘quiet, indomitable’ spirit of those who have ‘risen magnificently’ to the challenges of 2020, adding that ‘we need life to go on’. This was the first Christmas Speech to be available on smart devices, like Amazon’s Alexa.

The Queen has been awarded an honorary BAFTA, and been described as the ‘most memorable’ Bond Girl, after her 2012 Olympics opening sketch with Daniel Craig, but she is regularly at the top of the viewing figures for Christmas Day. In 2016, 8 million people had Her Majesty in their living room, which beat 2015’s viewing number by almost 500,000 people. In 2020, it was a more modest 6.3 million, but still ahead of the next most-popular show of Call the Midwife.

The Royal Family usually gather at Sandringham, and watch The Queen’s message after a feast as per royal tradition on Christmas Day. It is thought The Queen leaves the room to watch her speech alone.

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