A brief history of: The Christmas Speech

As many of us prepare to tune in to the Queen’s Christmas message, Julian Humphrys investigates the origins of this seasonal tradition...

This article was first published in the Christmas 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Who made the first royal Christmas broadcast?

King George V. On Christmas Day 1932 he delivered a 251-word, three-minute wireless message, penned for him by poet and writer Rudyard Kipling. It was broadcast live just after 3pm, which was considered the best time for reaching most of the countries
of the empire by short-wave radio.

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Was it the king’s idea?

No. It was thought up by BBC director, John Reith, who saw itas a way of inaugurating the BBC’s Empire Service (now the World Service). 

George V was initially uncertain about using the relatively untested medium of radio. He was persuaded to do so following a visit to the BBC and a discussion with prime minister Ramsay MacDonald who sold the idea of the Christmas broadcast as a tool to help the monarchy maintain unity within the empire.

Where did he make the broadcast?

In a small room in Sandringham House, connected by telephone lines to Broadcasting House. The king was highly nervous – he was reported as saying that the prospect of making the broadcast ruined his Christmas. The table at which he sat was covered with thick cloth to muffle the rustling of the papers held in his trembling hands.

How was the broadcast received?

Extremely well. Over 20 million people listened and there was widespread approval, not only of Kipling’s words, but also of the king’s no-nonsense delivery of them. His slightly gravelly voice was particularly well-suited to his image as the ‘grandfather’ of the empire.

What happened next?

George V made an annual Christmas broadcast for the rest of his reign, the last coming less than a month before his death in 1936. But there would be no Christmas speech from his son, Edward VIII, that year. When he did make a broadcast in December, it was to announce his abdication. It would take the wartime Christmas messages of George VI to turn the royal Christmas broadcast into the tradition it is today.

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To listen to George V’s first Christmas message, go to bbc.co.uk/programmes/p027m2xp