King George V may have invented the tradition of delivering a Christmas Day message to the subjects of the British monarchy worldwide in 1932, but it was his granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, who first televised the annual event 25 years later.
While George’s speeches were radio broadcasts, as were Elizabeth’s first addresses from 1952-1956, her historic 1957 speech aired on live TV from her home in Sandringham. The broadcasts offered viewers a rare, humanizing glimpse inside her residence and at her mannerisms, while reaching a vast audience. In her first broadcast, Elizabeth also noted that the monarch’s role had shifted from ruler to one of symbolic support for the kingdom’s people.
“I very much hope that this new medium will make my Christmas message more personal and direct,” she said from the country house’s Long Library. “It is inevitable that I should seem a rather remote figure to many of you. A successor to the kings and queens of history; someone whose face may be familiar in newspapers and films but who never really touches your personal lives. But now at least for a few minutes, I welcome you to the peace of my own home.”
Alan Allport, a professor and historian at Syracuse University who specializes in the history of Britain in the period of the two world wars, says television was still a fairly new medium in 1957, with millions of people witnessing TV programming for the first time while watching the queen's coronation four years earlier.
“The idea of beaming the image of the monarch into ordinary people's homes represented a new kind of intimacy in the relationship between the Crown and the masses,” he says. “The royal family has long faced the difficult balancing act of maintaining the dignity and mystique of monarchy while also appearing to be approachable and possessing enough of the 'common touch.’ ”
In the televised speech—viewed in Great Britain alone by 16.5 million people, with another 9.5 million listening in on radio—Elizabeth remarked that, in the past, the British monarch led soldiers on battlefields, offering constant, personal leadership.
“Today things are very different,” she said. “I cannot lead you into battle, I do not give you laws or administer justice but I can do something else, I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.”
Christmas Message Beginnings
The first Christmas message from George V, ideated by BBC founder Sir John Reith and penned by poet Rudyard Kipling, reached 20 million listeners via BBC radio broadcast and received an extremely favorable response.
“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,” George V began his two-and-a-half-minute remarks.
George VI carried on the holiday tradition in 1937, as shown in the movie “The King’s Speech.” (Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne in less than a year, did not make a Christmas speech.) According to Royal.uk, the official website of the British royal family, there were no Christmas broadcasts in 1936 or 1938, but the outbreak of World War II prompted George VI to resume the tradition in 1939.
Since 1952, following her father’s death, Elizabeth delivered the message, something she continued to do every year except in 1969, when a printed version was circulated because a documentary on the royal family was scheduled during the holiday season.
Throughout her reign, the queen used the broadcasts to reflect on national, global and personal events, issues and concerns. Since 1960, the broadcasts, always aired at 3 p.m. in Great Britain, were pre-recorded so Commonwealth countries could run them at their preferred times.
A More Accessible Monarch
Despite its reception, the 1957 speech, according to Allport, followed a 1953 controversy about whether Elizabeth’s coronation should be televised, with some of the queen's advisors regarding the idea as vulgar and intrusive.
“Elizabeth herself had insisted on the presence of TV cameras to allow her subjects an unprecedented glimpse of the service,” he says. “She felt a modern democratic nation and Commonwealth needed a more accessible monarch. The 1957 Christmas broadcast was an extension of that greater visibility.”
However, that visibility had its limits, adds Allport, whose most recent book is Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War 1938-1941.
“The queen's children were not shown in the broadcast and would not appear for some years to come, despite popular demand to see them, as Elizabeth felt that was too great an intrusion into the family's private life,” he says.