On Christmas day 1932, King George V made the first royal Christmas broadcast. His speech was short, no more than 251 words, and lasted two-and-a-half minutes, but it started a tradition that has continued to this day. The text of this Christmas speech was written by poet and writer Rudyard Kipling and it was broadcast live by radio from his study at Sandringham. The time chosen was 3 pm - the best time for reaching most of the countries in the Empire by short waves from the transmitters in Britain.
Although he had reigned since 1910, it wasn't until the summer of 1932 that he was convinced to do a Christmas broadcast using the 'untried medium of radio'. King George V continued to broadcast until the end of his reign. His voice noticeably weaker, his last speech came in 1935, a month before his death.
There was no Christmas broadcast in 1936 as King Edward VIII abdicated just before Christmas. His successor, King George VI delivered his first Christmas message in 1937, thanking the nation for their support during the first year of his reign. George VI had stammered most of his life and he would always find making the broadcast to be an ordeal. There would be no broadcast in 1938, as it had yet to become a regular tradition. However the Second World War would change that.
In 1939, three months after war had been declared, he made a speech that was to have a profound effect. Wearing his uniform of Admiral of the Fleet, he reassured his people in the uncertain times ahead. During the Second World War these broadcasts played a large part in boosting morale and reinforcing belief in the common cause. All of his broadcasts were live except for his last one, in 1951. Suffering from lung cancer, the message was pre-recorded as he was only able to manage the recording in intervals. Despite this, his optimistic words were to touch his listeners, who were unaware of the seriousness of his illness.
He died in February 1952, and his heir, the present Queen, made her first broadcast on Christmas day of that year. Using the same desk and chair as her father and grandfather, she broadcast her radio message live from Sandringham. This message would be recorded and re-broadcast all over the world for the benefit of those who could not get a good reception that day. In 1953, while on her Commonwealth tour, she made her speech from Auckland, New Zealand; the first and only time that it would be done outside of the United Kingdom.
In 1957, on the 25th anniversary of her grandfather's first broadcast, the Queen's Christmas message was televised for the first time. From 1960 onwards, the broadcasts were recorded in advance so that tapes of the speech would be sent across the Commonwealth for transmissions at convenient times.
The Queen has given a broadcast every year of her reign except one. In 1969, when the documentary film 'Royal Family' was shown, it was decided not to broadcast a Christmas message. Instead she released a written message. Listeners missed the broadcast and wrote to the BBC to complain. A message had been broadcast without break ever since.
The broadcast has kept up with modern technology. In 1932, King George V had the 'wireless', in 1957, the Queen broadcast live on television, and in 1998 the broadcast appeared on the Internet for the first time. Today, the message is recorded a few days before Christmas and lasts up to 10 minutes.
Since 1932, the Christmas broadcast has become a chronicle of global, national and personal events, reflecting current issues and concerns. Lending a personal touch, the Queen talks about her hopes for the year ahead and what Christmas means to her and many of her listeners.
This year will be the Queen's 52nd Christmas broadcast. We can look forward to this tradition continuing for many years to come.
For a complete archive of the Queen's Christmas broadcasts click here.
© Marilyn Braun 2005