Every year, on Christmas Day, at 3p.m., millions of us around the country tune to watch the Queen’s Christmas message. It has been more than 60 years (1957) since her first speech was broadcast on television, complete with sound and pictures (which had taken five extra years to effect). It is delivered at 3p.m. to [...]

Sunday Times 2

Queen’s Christmas message reaches jubilee milestone


Every year, on Christmas Day, at 3p.m., millions of us around the country tune to watch the Queen’s Christmas message. It has been more than 60 years (1957) since her first speech was broadcast on television, complete with sound and pictures (which had taken five extra years to effect).

Last year's picture of Queen Elizabeth II delivering her Christmas message

It is delivered at 3p.m. to allow the people of all 52 member states of the Commonwealth to have a decent chance to listen in or watch. So in New Zealand they get it at 6:50p.m. (their time), in Australia at 7:20p.m. and in Canada at midday.

For many of us, it’s a ritual that’s part of our traditional Christmas as we fit it into the big day’s schedule, making things work around it, be it present giving, the Church service, the turkey feast or the attempt to walk it off.

Because of her long reign, the Queen has represented a constant in every living British subject and for many her annual message comes with a reassuring familiarity. Its formal title ‘Her Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech’ — and it was BBC founder Sir John Reith’s idea. The first one in 1932 was given by the Queen’s grandfather King George V. It was meant to be simply a one-off event to inaugurate the BBC World Service but has become customary instead ever since 1939, as King George VI was keen to boost morale during WWII.

Rudyard Kipling wrote the first one but the Queen writes all her Christmas speeches herself though with some consultation. David Attenborough produced it for five years until 1991. In 1956 she got criticised for “too many ponderous platitudes written into it by her officials”. Some still find the words somewhat bland and anodyne, especially as she is keen on the phrases ‘shining example’ ‘weak and innocent’ and ‘the Commonwealth.’

Typically her speech reflects upon the major events of the year though she also mentions her own, and her family’s, personal milestones. Her connection and commitment to the Commonwealth is one of her abiding themes as she highlights the royals’ respective tours. Her religious values also shine through as she offers comfort to those suffering from a particularly tragic topical event.

The setting varies across the decades though usually the broadcast is filmed at Buckingham Palace a few days beforehand. Behind her is a decorated Christmas tree and selected family photo frames. Recently the photographs were delicately stage managed to display only the major royals in an attempt to reassert their predominance in royal matters.

In 1957 and for the next forty years, the broadcast was televised, apart from the radio message of 1963 when she was pregnant with Prince Edward. In 1997, the palace decided BBC and ITN would share it on alternate years (with Sky News added in 2011). They said it was to “reflect the composition of the television and radio industries today”.

There’s been a conscious effort to allow modernity to play its part in her presentation. Will it last or is it something that is dying with the younger generations? Obviously her mortality brings into question the status of the Commonwealth to which her commitment has prolonged its health. Then again the royals are sensitive to avoid falling out of step with the society they lead.

Notable years

In 1956 the Duke of Edinburgh spoke from abroad while aboard the royal yacht Britannia. The Queen, meanwhile, made her speech from Sandringham. She said the Duke’s message gave her and her children the greatest joy and she wished him a good journey and admitted her sadness at being separated from him. She also showed sympathy to those who, unlike her, don’t enjoy a united family or can’t be at home for Christmas.

In the first televised broadcast of 1957, the Queen remarked on the fact that her message could now be viewed in people’s homes. Some in Britain complained that their radio transmissions were affected by sunspots and so resulted in American police radio frequency interference. Listeners got to hear an American police officer say “Joe, I’m gonna grab a quick coffee.”

Apart from 1969, the Queen has broadcast her address every year. That year she decided to write it instead, supposedly because the Royals felt overpublicised from the documentary ‘Royal Family’. “I want you all to know”, she wrote, “that my good wishes are no less warm and personal because they come to you in a different form.” But public concern prompted her to give an assurance there would be a return to tradition for 1970.

To date, the year of the highest ratings was 1980, when a record 28 million viewers tuned into the BBC at 3p.m. The message looked at the celebrations for the 80th birthday of The Queen Mother and addressed the notion of service in its many aspects.

In 1989, she read part of her speech from the stage in front of an audience at the Royal Albert Hall and it was the first time it had been heard prior to airing. She had previously recorded a message outdoors in 1975 from the gardens of Buckingham Palace.

In her message in 1992, the 60th anniversary of the speech and the 40th of the Queen’s reign, she described the year as ‘a horrible year’ using the Latin phrase “annus horribilis”. It was when the marriages of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew fell apart as well as the eruption, a month before, of a large fire at Windsor Castle. When The Sun newspaper leaked the speech two days in advance the Queen sued and the paper gave £200,000 to charity.

For the Royals, 1997 was a busy year. The message began with images of Westminster Abbey, which had been the scene both of Diana’s funeral and the celebration of the Queen’s golden wedding anniversary, and she spoke of the joy of her married life. She also welcomed the devolution of power to Wales and Scotland and spoke of the benefits of being a United Kingdom.

In 2001, she referred to the many tragedies of that year including the foot-and-mouth outbreak and the 9/11 attacks. There was the famous footage of the American national anthem being played for the ‘Changing of the Guard’ at Buckingham Palace.

Her 50th Christmas broadcast was in 2002. She spoke about joy and sadness and reflected on her “personal loss” following the deaths of both her sister, Princess Margaret, and her mother. Beside her were positioned photographs of the Queen Mother, King George VI and Princess Margaret.

In the 2004 speech, footage included the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visiting a Sikh temple and Prince Charles attending various multicultural meetings and a Muslim school in east London. The theme of the message (‘cultural and religious diversity and the benefits of tolerance’) was warmly received by leaders of Britain’s Muslim and Sikh communities.

In 2012, Sky News broadcast the Message in 3D. The Palace said: “We wanted to do something a bit different and special in this Jubilee year, so doing it for the first time in 3D seemed a good thing, technology wise, to do.” The Queen famously donned a pair of 3D glasses, as opposed to her usual rimless spectacles. This message was her 60th and commemorated her Diamond Jubilee and 80 years of Christmas messages.

In 2016 she said: “On our own, we cannot end wars or wipe out injustice, but the cumulative impact of thousands of small acts of goodness can be bigger than we imagine.” What’s coming this Christmas? Tune in at 3pm!

(The writer worked on the first series of the BBC panel game QI for Stephen Fry. He is a British author having written three books about unusual words with Penguin Press.)

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.