Every Christmas the Sovereign delivers a speech to the nation – it usually lasts for ten to fifteen minutes and reflects on the year that is passing and hopes for the future. The speech has become so ingrained in how the British celebrate Christmas that it has been seen as a tradition and part of the routine of how people observe the festive season. But as like other things with the British monarchy, this “tradition” is not as old as we might think and from a historical point of view is seen as one of the many ways by which the royal family has utilised modern technology to reach out to its people as well as a means of adapting to the world around them.
The first Christmas speech was broadcast over the radio by King George V on 25 December 1932. As he would write in his diary: “At 3:35, I broadcasted a short message of 251 words to the whole Empire from Francis’ (Knollys) room.” Actually the broadcast was at 3:50pm as the clocks at Sandringham (where the broadcast took place) were set thirty minutes faster than normal time to maximise daylight. The fact that the King had agreed to broadcast a speech over the festive period was a triumph for the nascent British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) under the leadership of its Director General John Reith and it was used to inaugurate the corporation’s World Service.
However, it had not been an easy road to that historic event in 1932. Although radio had been around since the 1920s and the BBC was established in 1926, the King resisted any attempts to engage with the new medium. This despite the fact that he allowed his speeches for important state and ceremonial occasions such as the opening of the British Empire exhibition at Wembley to be broadcast live over the radio.
George V was instinctively and naturally a conservative and had been a reluctant participant in the changes brought upon by political, social and demographic changes during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the second son of the future King Edward VII, George V was originally not trained to become King; rather it was his older brother Prince Albert Victor (known to the family as “Eddy”) Duke of Clarence who received the education deemed appropriate for a future monarch.
The Prince of Wales, mindful of the brutal hothouse education that was imposed on him by his own father Prince Albert, took great care to ensure that his children had at least the semblance of a normal (by the standards of the time) upbringing which would allow them to be children. He also enrolled Eddy and George in the navy with the understanding that while the former would eventually leave in order to further prepare himself for his role as a future King, George who was the spare and a relatively junior member of the royal family stayed; with an eye towards becoming a career naval officer in order to make his way in the world.
As Matthew Glencross noted, his time in the navy would have an eventual impact on George’s outlook, mentality and style of kingship. Unlike the army, the navy treated everyone the same regardless of social status. Every cadet had to undergo the same type of training and shared the same type of accommodation and rations. There was no special treatment for George just because he was a prince and whatever he felt about the separation from his parents and siblings (to whom he was very close), it was only shared through letters back home and repressed under the idea of duty which he imbibed and would later become a hallmark of his reign.
Another major impact of the navy on George and his eventual reign was how he saw himself. Because of his naval career, he was often absent from many family gatherings where he could get to know royals from the Continent, many of who were related to him. Unusually also for a prince at that time, George could barely speak French or German and this language barrier was a further factor in his lack of relationships with fellow royals. Glencross further observed that:
“[H]e grew up without a sense of being part of an extended and cosmopolitan royal family…..[t]his meant that, outside his immediate family, by the time he was an adult George felt little affinity with various other royals to whom he was related, whether based in Britain or on the continent……[he] therefore did not, unlike his father and grandmother have a real sense of claiming membership of a Europe-centred ‘Trade Union of Kings’, something so central to his thinking, had little real influence on George, whose thinking was so much more local.” (p. 37)
Since the King’s formative years had been spent with those in the middle class and gentry that were the bedrock of the Royal Navy, he was to see himself as British first and foremost and this would inform the decisions he would make during his reign.
George V’s view of himself as thoroughly British would stand him in good stead when he ascended the throne on the death of his father King Edward VII in 1910, and crucially during the First World War and its aftermath. From the beginning of his reign, George was eager to use ceremony to bind the royal family and its peoples- not just in Britain but also across the empire as a “family of nations.” This meant not only following his father’s dictum that “the more the people see their Sovereign the better it is for the country” but going one step further by interacting with ordinary people. He and his wife Queen Mary immediately went on visits to various parts of the United Kingdom, a pattern that continued throughout his reign and which endures to the present day.
The growing mass media was also harnessed. During the war, the royal family’s activities were reported in the press, just as with their pre-war visits to various towns and cities across the country where they were seen talking to ordinary citizens; the king, queen and their older children were photographed out and about doing their duty and their bit for the war effort. These were not for show but to underline the King’s desire to share with his subjects and soldiers their sacrifices. After the war, the public engagements continued, but there was an increase in the work that the royals did in the field of charity and the voluntary sector; family events such as weddings which were held privately in the past now became state and public occasions. All these were reported in the papers and increasingly were filmed to be shown in newsreels across the country and empire.
Philip Williamson wrote that as the royal family undertook more patronages and performed more engagements, they began to make more speeches and these were widely reported and commented upon. While speeches could be relied upon to be published in the newspapers, the novelty of hearing royalty speak live would be made possible with the development of radio or wireless technology. As early as 1923, it had already been proposed to broadcast live the wedding of Prince Albert Duke of York to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, something which the couple agreed to but was vetoed by the Archbishop of Canterbury on the grounds that ‘men listening to the service in pubs would not bother to take their hats off.’ The following year, the opening ceremonies of the exhibition at Wembley were broadcast live and afforded the opportunity for the public to listen to the King speak even if they were not present at the venue itself.
As mentioned earlier in this blog, George V, while seeing the value of mass media as a way to cement that closer bond between crown and people, was disinclined to make a speech that would be broadcast outside an important occasion. It took years of persuasion not only from Reith but even courtiers: the most notable being Lord Stamfordham, the private secretary, and his assistant Sir Clive Wigram, to convince the King of the merits of making such a broadcast. Both men had long seen the potential of the new medium of broadcasting as a way for the royal family to reach out more to the people and thought that an address either during Christmas or New Year would achieve that objective.
It wasn’t until 1932 when together with the Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, that Reith and Wigram (who by then had replaced Stamfordham as Private Secretary) were finally able to persuade the reluctant King to make such a broadcast. Reith offered the King the option of a Christmas Day or New Year’s Day broadcast: George chose the former as he reasoned that the vast majority of people would be with their families that day just as he would be and it would underscore the importance of Christmas as a family day.
Once the King had agreed to deliver a speech on Christmas Day, he was not a passive bystander content to leave the planning and logistics to his courtiers and the BBC. While Rudyard Kipling was drafted to write the speech, there was active input and feedback from the monarch, ensuring that his character would shine through the speech. A BBC crew travelled up to Sandringham for the broadcast and after selecting a room for the broadcast to be carried out, George participated in voice tests to determine where in the room the table and the microphones would be set up. The control room was set up in the room next door while the microphones and cue light that were to be used by the King were covered in cases made out of Australian walnut.
It was understandable that the King would be nervous and so the table that was used for the broadcast was swathed in thick cloth to deaden the sound of rustling paper. As for the time that the speech would be broadcast, it was decided to schedule it at 3 o’clock in the afternoon as that time was seen as the most advantageous for reaching most of the countries of the Empire by shortwaves from British transmitters.
The speech itself was short, as the King observed in his diary, only 251 words, but they underlined George’s view of Britain and the Empire as one big family, and the possibilities of technology in enabling communication between this wide family scattered across the globe:
“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 may be that our future may lay upon us more than one stern test. Our past will have taught us how to meet it unshaken. For the present, the work to which we are all equally bound is to arrive at a reasoned tranquillity within our borders; to regain prosperity without self-seeking; and to carry with us those whom the burden of past years has disheartened or overborne.”
“My life’s aim has been to serve as I might, towards those ends. Your loyalty, your confidence in me has been my abundant reward.”
“I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all. To men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them; to those cut off from fuller life by blindness, sickness, or infirmity; and to those who are celebrating this day with their children and grand-children. To all—to each—I wish a Happy Christmas. God Bless You!”
It was perhaps just as well that the table had been covered with that thick cloth as George revealed later that his hands were shaking throughout the broadcast. If there was any trace of nerves, the listeners did not notice. In fact, the broadcast was well received; as the writer Donald Spoto in his study of the royal family observed, George V’s speeches were a natural expression of his character and the Christmas speech was no different. The broadcast also revealed that the King had a talent for and showed himself to be an effective communicator over the radio; it also made him more human and approachable. By hearing his voice over the wireless, it was as if the King was present in every home that had tuned in to hear him speak.
Although pleased that the speech went well, George V had no intention of making the Christmas address an annual event due to his nerves but upon seeing the letters of appreciation from ordinary members of the public not just in Britain but across the empire, he agreed to broadcast a speech every Christmas with the last in 1935. And while King George VI due to his stammer was not keen to carry on what his father had started, by December 1939 with the Second World War already in full swing, the Christmas broadcast was resurrected and since then it has been an annual fixture in British radio and later television.
What made that first broadcast a success and led to the development of a new tradition? The writer John Pearson mused that George V’s “resonant diction and nautical sincerity” played a part and which one of the King’s early biographers, John Gore observed:
“The homely simplicity and kindliness of his latest address to the Country and empire had been widely appreciated…..He knew himself now to be regarded as the Father of a great Family of Nations…..it was as a father of a family and a Father of the larger family of nations that he spoke each year those Christmas messages and he chose ideas, and words to clothe them, which suited the occasion, the conditions, and the character of the man who would speak them. The very simplicity of thought and the chosen words gave them the King’s authentic signature. He was a simple, natural, frank and friendly man and his favourite words were like himself.” (p. 423)
It wasn’t just George’s talent for broadcasting but also his wholesale commitment to his duty and another application of the lessons he learned in the navy as a young cadet. They stood him in good stead as the world changed and it enabled him and the royal family to adapt and move with the changing times. His grandmother and father had engaged with the innovations of their time – photography and moving images – and George V continued this engagement with technology through the medium of radio which as Pearson wrote “the broadcast marked in fact a further radical advance in the transformation of the monarchy by the mass media” and thanks to the wireless, “King George V could now seem even closer to his people as the nation heard its sovereign’s greeting live across the either……..[he] became something no monarch had ever been before in history, an intimately appreciated, widely known human being, a simple king in the age of the common man.”
Although many would point out that the Christmas speech was another in a series of “invented traditions” and a response a response to a host of specific domestic and international political forces during the late 19th and 20th centuries, it can also be viewed in Takashi Fujitani’s words as a way to “dramatize the cultural values that have been shared by rulers and ruled alike – since who knows when” and these rituals allow the rulers to “place themselves in the cultural frameworks that already unify a people.”
In the end however, for King George V and his successors the annual Christmas speech was a way for the monarch to emphasise their “duty to the Crown and all it stood for, rather than on the privileges of royalty” as well as to reaffirm that all important bond between the monarch and his people.
John Gore. King George V: A Personal Memoir (London, 1941)
Kenneth Rose. King George V (London, 1983)
John Pearson. The Ultimate Family: The Making of the Royal House of Windsor (London, 1986)
Tom Fleming. Voices Out of the Air: The Royal Christmas Broadcasts (London, 1981)
Takashi Fujitani. Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan (Berkeley, 1986)
Louise Cooling. A Royal Christmas (London, 2018)
David Cannadine, ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the “Invention of Tradition,” c. 1820-1977’ in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds) The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 101-164.
Matthew Glencross. ‘George V and the New Royal House’ in Matthew Glencross, Judith Rowbotham and Michael D. Kandiah (eds) The Windsor Dynasty 1910 to the Present. ‘Long to Reign Over Us’? (Basingstoke, 2016), pp. 33-56.
Philip Williamson. ‘The Monarchy and Public Values 1910-53’ in Andrzej Olechnowicz (ed) The Monarchy and the British Nation 1780 to the Present (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 223-257.