Even though I said in this week’s podcast that I planned to see Spencer, I still haven’t! I will, I will, I promise. I’ve been looking forward to seeing it mostly because it’s a snapshot of one of my favorite side-stories in royal gossip, which is that Christmas at Sandringham sounds really awful. Every year, royal reporters dutifully detail how hellish “royal Christmas” is, with it’s military-like schedule, a half-dozen wardrobe changes every day, and heavily Germanic traditions. The Queen likes to go to church not once but twice on Christmas day. Kids are not allowed for most of the royal Christmas celebrations. There are strict protocols everywhere you look. No gift giving on Christmas day, and the presents which are exchanged (on Christmas Eve) have to be either cheap or handmade. Spencer screenwriter Steven Knight also revealed another awful royal Christmas tradition: people are weighed upon their arrival and their departure.
The Windsors aren’t just traditionalists. As the documentary Sandringham: The Queen at Christmas makes clear, they are also a military family—meaning that the 72-hour holiday is scheduled with military precision and strict attention to royal protocol. For example, even now, arrivals at Sandringham are choreographed—with the more junior royals arriving first and the senior royals following.
Per a tradition dating back to Queen Victoria, guests are still required to weigh themselves on antique scales upon arrival and before leaving—the rationale being that they only enjoyed themselves if they gained three pounds. By 1991, Knight says that Diana’s bulimia was known within palace walls but never discussed. “The fact that someone with her condition was coming to a place where you have to be weighed when you arrive,” says Knight, is particularly resonant.
Per German tradition, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve—a difficult rite of passage for Sandringham newcomers given the royals’ fascination with cheap presents. There are formal black-tie dinners on both Christmas Eve and Christmas, with seating plans drawn up by the queen herself. (One rule: couples are split up to make for better conversation.) Table etiquette is important—apparently, according to the aforementioned documentary, guests should not sprinkle salt and pepper directly onto their food, but on the plate itself. Wine glasses should only be touched at the stem. When the queen puts her fork and knife down, all of the guests must also put down their utensils.
On Christmas, there is the annual photo-call and walk to church before the queen delivers her yearly holiday broadcast. The Christmas dinner is a black-tie affair for which tiaras and fine jewels are encouraged. The queen’s dresser, Angela Kelly, has revealed that the monarch changes wardrobes up to seven times a day during the holiday period—and sets the tone for what the other guests are to wear.
“Once Her Majesty has chosen her dress for dinner, a handwritten notice is pinned up in the Dressers’ Corridor detailing what she will be wearing, so that the Queen’s ladies’ maids can select an appropriate dress for the lady they are looking after,” Kelly wrote in her book The Other Side of the Coin: The Queen, the Dresser and the Wardrobe.
“Imagine Diana in her circumstance, and the fact that everything’s based around food, and everything’s based around what you wear, and how you look,” says Knight. “And that means what shape you are. So everything is about what’s in the mirror, not what’s really there. I used mirrors a lot in script because it’s about reflection, and she’s not the reflection. She’s herself.”
The “weighing royals upon their arrival at Sandringham” thing is apparently dealt with in Spencer, because the film also deals with Diana’s bulimia and how many triggers she was dealing with whenever she went to Sandringham. While she spent her childhood on the estate (before her father became the Earl Spencer), she absolutely loathed it and loathed going to the big Sandringham house. Also, if someone tried to weigh me at a family gathering, I would throw hands, OMFG.
Photos courtesy of Avalon Red, ‘Spencer’.