Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Majesty, Honor, and Tradition: The Monarch's Christmas Broadcast

by Beth von Staats

Queen Elizabeth II Delivering Her First Christmas Broadcast, 1952

"At my Coronation next June, I shall dedicate myself anew to your service.... 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."

-- Queen Elizabeth II, Christmas Day, 1952 --

Technology is a remarkable thing. Prior to the advent of the wireless radio, the vast majority of the subjects of the kings and queens of first England and Wales, then Great Britain, and ultimately the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth nations never heard directly from their monarchs. Although common people could guess through portraiture and know from photography what their monarchs looked like, unless they had the great fortune to attend an event where the monarch spoke or gained an audience, hearing their king or queen speak directly to them was virtually impossible.

There are few people alive in the United Kingdom today who remember a Christmas Day without hearing their monarch speak directly to them. Now a time honored tradition, the monarch's Christmas Broadcast, first delivered by radio, then also television, and now additionally by streaming on the internet, is as ingrained into the British national consciousness as Christmas Eve church services, Father Christmas, choral singing, Ebenezer Scrooge, mistletoe, the Yule log, Christmas crackers, and the delightful, albeit laboriously prepared, flaming Christmas pudding.

King George V Delivering His First Christmas Broadcast, 1932

In 1932, with the growing popularity of the wireless radio, Sir John Reith, a brilliant founding father of the British Broadcasting Company, pitched a novel idea to the Royal Family. Would King George V be willing to speak directly to his people via the wireless radio on Christmas Day as a prologue to inaugurate the Empire Christmas Service?

Initially King George was hesitant. Nothing short of him touring the British Broadcasting Company personally convinced him of the brilliance of the idea. Ultimately, after much deliberation, the king agreed. With this simple leap of faith into the modern era, the vast majority of King George V's subjects listened to the voice of their monarch for the first time in history, hearing firsthand the king marvel at the technology that brought him to them on Christmas Day. Leaving nothing to chance, the words spoken from the king were not of his composition, but instead those of renowned poet and author Rudyard Kipling.


Video Credit: Roman Styran (You Tube)

With an estimated 20 million subjects around the globe witness to the event, King George V's first Christmas Broadcast had an enormous impact upon the British people. Beyond a far more pronounced feeling of closeness to the monarchy, the use of the wireless radio as a means to speak to the realm created a unifying force of patriotism through shared values, hardships, sacrifices, challenges and the ultimate success and victory possible, despite all odds, created from a unified sense of purpose. Though unknown to him at the time, King George V set the precedent and ultimate stage for his son, King George VI, as well as the British government, to galvanize an entire nation to fight for their survival together as one people during the dark days of World War II.

King George VI Delivering His First Christmas Broadcast, 1939

Although the monarch's annual Christmas Broadcast was becoming increasing popular, it did not become an annual event until Christmas Day 1939. Overcoming through exhaustive speech therapy a life-long pronounced stammer, King George VI spoke to his people in the midst of the onset of the horrors of World War II. With conviction and valor, King George VI reassured his people by forthrightly telling them, "A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle, we shall remain undaunted."

Although King George VI was a constitutional monarch with only the power to advise, his ability to reassure his people through his committed example of true courage and shared sacrifice as communicated through the print media and wireless radio profoundly impacted morale and confidence among the realm that victory was not only possible, but inevitable. Consequently, the Christmas Broadcasts that King George VI conscientiously prepared and then persevering and haltingly articulated during World War II hold a pronounced importance in the history of the nation.

Queen Elizabeth II Delivering Her Christmas Broadcast, 2013

Upon her ascension to the throne in 1952, Queen Elizabeth II delivered via radio transmission a memorable inaugural Christmas Broadcast, asking her subjects for their prayers on her behalf. Five years into her reign, Her Majesty then entered a new age of communication by delivering the first televised Christmas Broadcast, broadening and personalizing further still the reach of the monarchy to the people. For the first time in history, common people caught a glimpse of the Royal Family's homes decked for the holidays, further humanizing the monarchy in the eyes of the subjects of the realm. By 1960, to insure all people throughout the Commonwealth nations could view the Queen's Christmas Broadcast, her holiday messages became prerecorded, further increasing the monarch's ability to reach her intended audience.

Unlike her grandfather King George V, Queen Elizabeth does not rely on others to craft her words and message. Each year, Her Majesty selects a meaningful theme often driven by current events and builds her speech around it. For example, in 1966, the Queen focused her message to women, telling those listening home and abroad, "In the modern world the opportunities for women to give something of value to the human family are greater than ever, because, through their own efforts, they are now beginning to play their full part in public life." With the advent of the ability to prerecord her broadcasts, Her Majesty also is able to highlight visually events of the year, along with her thoughts and opinions about their impact.

Queen Elizabeth II Delivering Her Christmas Broadcast, 1997

Although the Christmas Broadcasts of Queen Elizabeth II rarely hold the historical impact of her beloved father during the war years, her annual conversation with her people sometimes does rise to importance in establishing the monarchy as continually viable. This took on a critical priority in the Queen's 1997 Christmas Broadcast, the first Her Majesty delivered after the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Her affection with the people at its lowest in her reign, Queen Elizabeth's Christmas Broadcast of 1997 provided essential reassurance of her humanity, compassion and love for her family.

Now an annual cherished tradition for over 80 years, the monarch's Christmas Broadcast continues to hold an essential role in binding and unifying the United Kingdom and Commonwealth nations, not only in reinforcing the pride and patriotism of the realm's subjects, but also in insuring the continued popularity and vibrancy of their constitutional monarchy. Long may it reign.


"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,
honour all men.'

It is a simple message of compassion... and yet as powerful as ever today, two thousand years after Christ's birth.

I hope this day will be as special for you as it is for me. May I wish you all a very Happy Christmas."

-- Queen Elizabeth II, Christmas Day, 2000 --


Author Unidentified, A History of Christmas Broadcasts, The Official Website of the British Monarchy.

Logie, Phyllis, Looking at the History of the Queen's Christmas Day Speech, Humanities: Every Topic, Every Angle, 360.

Proctor, Charlie, A History of Christmas Broadcasts, Royal Central.


Beth von Staats is a short story historical fiction writer and administrator of Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers.

REVELATION: Tudor Era Short Stories by Beth von Staats



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