The Queen has been a (fairly) regular part of my Christmases up and down the years. I don’t think I would describe me or my family as avid royalists, but, every so often, we watch the Queen’s speech and, much like the Monarch herself, it’s always been there in the background, mentioned on the news or online.
My experience of the Queen’s Christmas broadcast is much like that of the monarchy as a whole. For a start, I am among the second generation of my family that was not alive under any other monarch than Elizabeth II, and part of the third generation to be born since the reign of her father, George VI. So it is a little difficult to chart a course into the past, to times when things were different.
However, relative to the rest of the monarchy, the Christmas address is new. I say relatively new, compared to an institution whose function was set down in the 18th Century via the Glorious Revolution. The first Christmas address was broadcast in 1932, in the early days of the BBC’s Empire Service radio station, now known as the World Service, reaching 20 million people across the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Kenya, South Africa and India, preceded by greetings from around the Empire. From then on, the yearly broadcast became a feature of Christmas in the British Empire, until the death of George V in 1936. After his demise, no address was made in either 1936 or 1938.
War, however, had a way of entrenching things. The Christmas’ of the Second World War were a chance for the monarchy to rise to the occasion, and play its intended role in uniting both the British metropole and its attendant imperial dominions. These broadcasts were deemed enough of a success to be continued after the war. But a problem was brewing.
The idea of the royal Christmas address was to give the monarchy a chance to speak to its subjects, and to be known to them in a specific way; namely, as the figurehead of the British Imperial state. Thus, the notion of ‘one imperial family’ would be maintained. But the Empire was falling apart; India and Pakistan declared independence on 15th and 14th August 1947 respectively, while Australia had been made independent de facto during the war. South Africa was on the path to secession from the Commonwealth. To make matters worse, Lord Altrincham’s now-famous criticisms were making life difficult for the Palace. Describing the Queen’s speeches to British Pathé as like hearing ‘a synthetic creature’ speaking, he expressed a not-uncommon sentiment that the Crown was alienated from its subjects.
So, what to do? Well, what better way to bring the Queen and country closer together than to bring the Queen into the country’s living room? Television, a technology that had been widely available for several years, but had neglected by the monarchy, promised to do just that.
The first televised broadcast was made at 15:00 GMT, 25th December 1957, beginning an annual run that continues to the present. But today in 2020, the monarch speaks to the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, who are the only nations to still air the speech. It is also now available online, and 2020 marked the first broadcast that was available to listen to on an Amazon Alexa.
But what is next for the Christmas broadcast? If 2020’s viewing figures indicate anything, the second great crisis of Elizabeth II’s lifetime has further entrenched the status of the address as a seasonal institution. We might not give it our undivided attention, but we’d definitely notice its absence.