The first Christmas Broadcast was delivered by George V in 1932 and since then has evolved into an important part of the Christmas Day celebrations for many in Britain and around the world.
The Christmas Broadcast is an intrinsic part of Christmas Day festivities for many people across the Commonwealth. Each Broadcast carefully reflects current issues and concerns, and shares The Queen’s reflections on what Christmas means to her and to many of her listeners. Over the years, the Christmas Broadcast has acted as a chronicle of global, national and personal events which have affected The Queen and her audience.
The Christmas message was started by The Queen’s grandfather, King George V. King George had reigned since 1910, but it was not until 1932 that he delivered his first Christmas message. The original idea for a Christmas speech by the Sovereign was mooted in 1932 by Sir John Reith, the visionary founding father of the BBC, to inaugurate the Empire Service (now the BBC World Service). Originally hesitant about using the relatively untried medium of radio in this way, The King was reassured by a visit to the BBC in the summer of 1932, and agreed to take part. And so, on Christmas Day, 1932, King George V spoke on the ‘wireless’ to the Empire from a small office at Sandringham.The transmission was an exercise of contemporary logistic brilliance. Two rooms at Sandringham were converted into temporary broadcasting rooms. The microphones at Sandringham were connected through Post Office land lines to the Control Room at Broadcasting House. From there connection was made to BBC transmitters in the Home Service, and to the Empire Broadcasting Station at Daventry with its six short-wave transmitters.
The General Post Office was used to reach Australia, Canada, India, Kenya and South Africa. The time chosen was 3.00pm – the best time for reaching most of the countries in the Empire by short waves from the transmitters in Britain. In the event, the first Broadcast started at five past three (twenty-five minutes to four according to the King’s ‘Sandringham Time’) and lasted two and a half minutes. The Broadcast was preceded by an hour-long programme of greetings from all parts of the Empire. The text of the first Christmas speech was written by poet and writer Rudyard Kipling and began with the words: “I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all.” The King acknowledged the unifying force of technology in his historic speech: “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.” As the sound of a global family sharing common interests, the Broadcast made a huge impact on its audience of 20 million. Equally impressed, George V made a Broadcast every Christmas Day subsequently until his death in 1936.
George V’s last Christmas Broadcast in 1935 came less than a month before his death and the King’s voice sounded weaker. He spoke of his people’s joys and sorrows, as well as his own, and there was a special word for his children.Early Christmas BroadcastsKing George V’s eldest son and the new king, Edward VIII, never delivered a Christmas Broadcast, as his reign lasted less than a year. The task fell to King George VI, King Edward’s younger brother, who made his first broadcast in December 1937 in which he thanked the nation and Empire for their support during the first year of his reign.
Though the Christmas Broadcast was already popular by this time, it had still not yet become the regular tradition it is today. Indeed, there had been no broadcasts in 1936 or 1938. It was the outbreak of war in 1939 which firmly established the Royal Christmas Broadcast. With large parts of the world now facing an uncertain future, King George VI spoke live to offer a message of reassurance to his people. He dressed in the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet, sitting in front of two microphones on a table at Sandringham. It was to be a landmark speech and was to have an important effect on the listening public as they were plunged into the uncertainty of war: “A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”
The war-time Christmas Broadcasts played a large part in boosting morale and reinforcing belief in the common cause. When the war ended, the Broadcasts – with their sentiments of unity and continuity – continued as a matter of course throughout the subsequent decades of change.
King George VI’s final Christmas Broadcast was marked by the illness that had plagued the King through his last years. The 1951 Broadcast was the only Broadcast that King George VI recorded rather than delivering live.
The King was only able to manage it in intervals, but his voice came over strongly. He spoke of his recovery from illness and the goodwill messages he had received: “From my peoples in these islands and in the British Commonwealth and Empire – as well as from many other countries – this support and sympathy has reached me and I thank you now from my heart…”
The BBC report at the time also noted the continuation of tradition: She used the same desk and chair as her father King George VI and his father King George V had done. In clear, firm tones she thanked her subjects for their “loyalty and affection” since her accession to the throne 10 months ago and promised to continue the work of her father and grandfather to unite the nations of the British Commonwealth and Empire. She asked them to pray for her on coronation day next summer.
Throughout her reign The Queen has made a Broadcast every year except one. No Christmas Broadcast took place in 1969 because a repeat of the documentary Royal Family was already scheduled for the holiday period. Public concern at this apparent break with tradition prompted The Queen to issue a written message of reassurance that the Broadcast would return in the following year, so popular had it become. The first televised message was broadcast live in 1957. The advent of television during The Queen’s reign has given an added dimension to her Broadcasts. It has allowed viewers to see The Queen in her own residences, decorated for Christmas like many homes across the world.