A brief history of the Christmas Speech

On 25 December, Queen Elizabeth II will deliver her 66th Christmas message to the nation. The Queen's speech has been broadcast since 1932, but the Queen has read it since 1952. As many of us prepare to tune in to the Queen's Christmas message on Christmas day, Julian Humphrys investigates the origins of the first royal Christmas address...

Britons watch Queen Elizabeth II’s Christmas message in 1958. (© Topfoto)

Which monarch 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.

Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) and her fiance, Philip Mountbatten at Buckingham Palace, after their engagement was announced, 10th July 1947. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Where did King George V make the first Christmas 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.

June 1936:  Queen Elizabeth II (as Princess Elizabeth) and her younger sister Princess Margaret (1930 - 2002) in the grounds of the Royal Lodge, Windsor.  Princess Margaret is holding one of their pet dogs, a Cairngorm terrier called Chu-Chu.  (Photo by Lisa Sheridan/Studio Lisa/Getty Images)

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.

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

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