Monarch’s Christmas day speech carried on by our new King Charles III

Things will look rather different this year if you’re watching television at 3pm on Christmas Day as, for the first time, King Charles III will come into our homes and deliver a seasonal message to his people.

King George VI who  made a speech to the nation each Christmas from 1939 exxcept for one year following an operation (photo: Getty Images)
King George VI who made a speech to the nation each Christmas from 1939 exxcept for one year following an operation (photo: Getty Images)

The Monarch’s Christmas Broadcast has been a traditional part of the festive season, stretching back 90 years, writes Steve Cain. Throughout her 70-year reign, the Queen’s Christmas Broadcast remained one of the most-watched television programmes on Christmas Day. Over the decades, it acted as a chronicle of personal, national and global events that affected the Queen as well as her subjects. And, at times, in her broadcast the Queen confronted and addressed events of a deeply personal nature for her and her family.

The image of Queen Elizabeth II, relaxed and at ease, sharing her own personal thoughts and reflections, with specific emphasis on her faith, her family, the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of Nations, was so familiar and reassuring that The Monarch’s Christmas Broadcast became affectionately referred to as, simply, The Queen’s Speech.

However, she was not always so confident in front of the camera and, in the past, the Christmas broadcast proved a daunting prospect, not only for the Queen but also for her father and grandfather before her. It’s fair to assume that the new King will share some similar anxieties ahead of his first Christmas address.

The idea for a Christmas message from the sovereign to the British Empire was first proposed in 1922 by founding father of the BBC John Reith. King George V declined the invitation, believing radio to be merely for entertainment. But, Reith was not easily deterred, and a decade later in 1932 the King finally agreed, after being encouraged to do so by Queen Mary and Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.

To relieve the King of any unnecessary anxiety, the Christmas message was written, on his behalf, by Rudyard Kipling. It was transmitted, on the wireless, live from Sandringham House in Norfolk and, in its opening sentence, touched on the relatively new technology that permitted the broadcast to be made.

The broadcast, which lasted two-and-a-half minutes, was described in The Times newspaper as "the most notable event of Christmastide".

King George V made three further Christmas messages before his death in January 1936. No Christmas message was broadcast that year, due to the abdication of King Edward VIII two weeks prior to Christmas.

In 1937 King George VI, who had been plagued by a crippling stammer from a very young age, was assisted in preparing for his first Christmas broadcast by his Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue. After the speech, which lasted three minutes and 20 seconds, Queen Elizabeth (who would later become The Queen Mother) put her hand on Logue’s arm and said "Mr Logue, I do not know that Bertie and myself can ever thank you enough for what you have done for him, just look at him now. I do not think I have ever known him so light-hearted and happy."

King George VI was adamant that his 1937 Christmas broadcast would be a one-off and would not be repeated. And, subsequently, there was no broadcast the following year. However, in 1939, following the outbreak of war, the King once again took to the airwaves at Christmas to offer a message of reassurance.

His broadcast concluded with the following words of encouragement: "I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown'". And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”’

These lines of poetry resonated with a country fearful and uncertain of the horrors of war, the press clamouring to discover the identity of the author. They weren’t the words of John Masefield, the Poet Laureate, as first suspected, but those of elderly female academic Minnie Louise Haskins.

Every Christmas that followed, King George VI addressed his people on Christmas Day. In 1951 the Christmas speech was recorded before the King, who had recently undergone lung surgery, departed to spend Christmas at Sandringham. It was the only one of his 14 Christmas messages that was not broadcast live. Instead, it had been recorded, paragraph by paragraph, at Buckingham Palace over the course of several hours. It was then taken back to the BBC and edited together. Some six weeks later the King died at Sandringham, aged only 56.

In her first Christmas message, six months before her Coronation in June 1953, Queen Elizabeth II asked that people should "pray that God may give me the 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."

Up to 1955 the Christmas message had been broadcast on the radio only. However, with ITV having launched in the UK, that year the sound only broadcast was simulcast on both ITV and BBC television services. When it was announced that the 1957 Christmas message would be televised in vision, there was eager anticipation as to what the Queen would wear for the occasion.

In the end, she chose a gold brocade dress with a slight metallic sheen, designed for her by Hardy Amies. Although the dress was very much of its time, it also had a dignity and elegance befitting a sovereign. Some sixteen-and-a-half million viewers watched the broadcast, the highest viewing figures for any television broadcast since her coronation four years earlier.

The Queen famously referred to 1992 as her "annus horribilis". In a year that had seen three of her children’s marriages disintegrate, the publication of the controversial biography Diana: Her True Story and a fire ravage through Windsor Castle, the Queen’s Christmas message made the headlines for the wrong reasons. The Sun newspaper published the complete transcript of the message - normally kept secret until transmission - ahead of its broadcast. Buckingham Palace said it was "very regrettable" and the Queen sued the paper for breach of copyright. In an out of court settlement The Sun apologised to the Queen and paid £200,000 to charity.

Now broadcast in 3-D, online and TV, Christmas broadcasts have consistently changed during 90 years, marking another major development as our new monarch speaks directly to his people this Christmas Day.