SANDRINGHAM, England: Queen Elizabeth II and her close family celebrated Christmas with a morning service at St. Mary Magdalene Church near her rural retreat at Sandringham in eastern England.
It was a festive event Wednesday as the queen was joined for the first time by Prince George, 6, and Princess Charlotte, 4, the two eldest children of Prince William and his wife, Kate. They left 1-year-old Prince Louis at home.
George and Charlotte walked to church hand in hand with their parents. Prince Charles, their grandfather, walked next to them.
The queen arrived in a Bentley with Charles’ wife, Camilla. Her elderly husband, Prince Philip, stayed at home. He was discharged from a hospital Tuesday after treatment for an undisclosed ailment. Philip, 98, has retired from public duties.
Prince Andrew, who has stepped down from royal duties because of his association with a convicted sex offender, attended an earlier church service with his brother Charles at his side.
Prince Harry, his wife, Meghan, and their 7-month-old son, Archie, did not attend. They are spending the holiday in Canada with Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland.
The royals were greeted by several hundred well-wishers who had gathered outside the church grounds. After the service, William, Kate and their two children mingled with the crowd to exchange Christmas greetings.
Gemma Clark, who was in a wheelchair, gave Charlotte an inflatable pink flamingo and received a hug in return. She said the flamingo was called Felicity but that Charlotte is free to give it another name.
“It made my day,” Clark added. “I’ve never seen the royal family, ever.”
After church, the royals gathered in Sandringham House for a gala turkey lunch.
The queen’s traditional pre-recorded Christmas message will be broadcast throughout Britain and the Commonwealth nations Wednesday afternoon. Excerpts released ahead of time reveal that the queen plans to acknowledge it has been a challenging year.
Talking about the need for reconciliation and forgiveness, Elizabeth says: “The path, of course, is not always smooth, and may at times this year have felt quite bumpy, but small steps can make a world of difference.”
She is thought to be referring both to Britain’s laborious exit from the European Union, which is now almost certainly going to happen on Jan. 31 after voters gave the pro-Brexit Conservative Party a comfortable majority in Parliament, and to the royal family’s difficulties.
The problems this year included Andrew’s retreat from public duties following a disastrous TV interview in which he defended his friendship with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and failed to show empathy for Epstein’s young female victims.
Andrew’s decision to attend an early church service rather than join the family for the traditional service reflects his isolated position now that he is no longer carrying out any royal duties.
The family has also endured what many close observers think is a rift between William and Harry, who has said he and William are now on separate paths.
It has been a difficult year of adjustment for Harry and Meghan. They have complained bitterly about constant scrutiny by the media as they settle into family life with Archie and have sought to take a break from royal responsibilities.