Every year on Christmas Day, after the cured meats but before the cooked ones, I find a quiet corner of the house to watch Queen Elizabeth II give her annual Christmas speech.
She’s been giving these speeches far longer than I’ve been watching them, since she took the throne in 1952. The format has changed over the decades, from radio to television to YouTube and Facebook Live. The monarch has changed too, from plummy twentysomething to sober nonagenarian. But in 68 years, the speech itself has, for the most part, stayed the same.
She always talks about Christmas: about Jesus and his teachings, that manger in Bethlehem, and the strength she draws from her faith. She recounts her travels abroad, marks milestone birthdays and jubilees, and commemorates the past year’s triumphs and tragedies. And she talks about the Commonwealth, that “immense union of nations” which was once the British Empire, and which still includes 54 countries from Australia to Zambia.
Christmas is the one day the Queen is permitted to speak freely, her message untouched by her prime minister’s pen. Her speech is not a policy agenda, like the one prepared for her at the state opening of Parliament. These words are hers alone. And like most people who use speechwriters, she claims to write them herself.
I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. In reading all 68 of her Christmas messages, patterns begin to emerge. She repeats some words dozens of times: hope, time, life, future, courage, service, peace. She returns to some of the same themes year after year, like her wonder at scientific advancement and achievement, or her admiration of “ordinary men and women.” In 1954 she says their “faithful toil and devotion to duty” is the reason for their countries’ progress, and in 1995, she credits them with bringing “peace to troubled lands.”
And of course, the Queen always talks about family, and expresses gratitude that she is able to spend Christmas with hers. Often, she uses the word “family” as a bridge to another recurring topic. First, the baby Jesus and the Holy Family, “a family in very distressed circumstances,” whose story is an “inspiration and an anchor in my life.” Second, the “Commonwealth family of nations,” a “family of people in the truest sense.” In her very first speech in 1952, she says: “Like our own families, it can be a great power for good.”
As a speechwriter, I recognize the Queen’s conundrum: how do you convey the same sentiments over and over? It’s her version of a stump speech, like the ones political candidates deliver several times a day on the campaign trail. Message discipline is crucial for public figures who need to get their point across, but the Queen doesn’t really have a point to make. Nevertheless, her messages are always the same, utterly and deliberately devoid of substance.
To be sure, the content of the Christmas speech has undergone some changes through the years. The word “empire” disappears after 1955, and is mentioned only twice more in the 1990s in a historical context. The speeches also vary widely in length: in 1977, she spoke for just five minutes; the next year, more than twenty. And for a few years in the early eighties, she chose bold, overarching themes: people with disabilities in 1981, “the sea” in 1982, and communications technology in 1983.
The jokes stand out, because there are only two. Once, in 1958: “We have no plans for space travel at the moment.” And again in 2006, paraphrasing a little girl: “Granny, can you remember the Stone Age?”
Perhaps the most interesting shift is in the way the Queen talks about religion. These are Christmas speeches, and she professes her faith in Christ as strongly in 2019 as she does in 1952, when she asks for prayers, “whatever your religion may be.” She understands from day one that her audience will have different beliefs, and at the turn of the century, she gets specific. In 2000, she acknowledges Britain’s rising secularism: “Whether we believe in God or not…” She names the Quran and other texts alongside the Bible, and after the September 11 attacks in 2001, she mentions Islam by name.
But these are subtle changes, hardly an evolution. So perhaps the most surprising fact about the Queen’s Christmas speeches is that she has given so many. She has spoken at nearly seventy Christmases now. During her reign, the US and UK have had a cavalcade of fourteen presidents and prime ministers each.
On one hand, this is hardly an accomplishment. She has merely survived; she is, as the playwright Peter Morgan puts it, “a postage stamp with a pulse.” Besides, she has overseen what has been described, bluntly but not unfairly, as “a reign of uninterrupted national decline.”
And yet she is beloved. In Papua New Guinea, a country which actually chose her as its queen in 1975, she is known as “Mama belong big family.” She remains the most popular member of the royal family, far more than Prince Charles, who will succeed her.
Through her longevity she transcends personhood: the Queen is a fixture, a tradition herself, a monument to the way things were. She’s a sign of stability, and there’s comfort in that. It is hard to imagine Charles giving these speeches, as he will do on a Christmas not too far from now. It’s even harder to imagine that I will watch them. Maybe I’m hanging on to a last bit of normalcy, in the same way the Queen clings to the Commonwealth, that vestige of the empire her ancestors colonized.
In her 1962 speech, she describes Christmas as “a firm landmark in the stormy seas of modern life.” 2020 has been the stormiest year in my memory, full of tragic loss and lonesomeness. So many of us share this grief, and so many have suffered far worse.
And through it all, the Queen remains, that staunch and abiding landmark. Never mind she’s the picture of privilege. Never mind it’s absurd to have a monarch in the 21st century anyway. For a few minutes each Christmas, reason succumbs to tradition and soothing continuity. If she can do it, these speeches seem to say, if she can keep calm and carry on for all this time, then surely so can we.
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Watch Queen Elizabeth II’s 2019 Christmas speech here.