King George V’s ‘reluctance’ at Christmas speech tradition laid bare

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The royal Christmas speech has been a tradition for coming up to 100 years. Each year – except in 1969 – the Queen has, since 1952, given the British public a summary of her’s and the country’s year. It is an event that many look forward to, and it’s one of the rare occasions that Her Majesty offers a brief insight into her personality, thoughts and feelings about current affairs – things that are usually forbidden as a result of entrenched royal tradition.

However, the Christmas speech may never have been.

It was first performed by King George V, the Queen’s paternal grandfather in 1932.

However, it took a decade of persuading for the King to finally agree to giving the talk.

By the 1920s, radio was increasingly becoming the medium through which leaders could talk to their nations and empires.

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In 1923, John Reith, General Manager of the newly formed BBC, wrote to George to ask him if he would be interested in giving a speech on significant holidays like Christmas, New Year’s and Easter.

George was “reluctant” according to the Government’s “History of the First Christmas Speech”, because of his being a “reluctant speech giver – due to a self-perceived lack of oral talent – and also an unashamed technophobe”.

He quickly declined the BBC’s request; but the broadcaster continued to pry, the following year gifting the King a radio set.

The BBC would for the rest of the 1920s broadcast messages delivered by the King, often bringing in audiences of 10 million listeners.

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Yet George still continued to refuse to give a Christmas speech, “largely due to his belief that he lacked the sophistication and flair of other broadcasters, and as the message would be personal in nature he could not hide behind the formality to combat his fears”.

Even his Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, who favoured the idea – and whose advice the King trusted and mostly accepted – felt that pursuing a Christmas speech by the monarch was a lost cause.

This all changed with the appointment of Ramsay MacDonald as the first Labour Prime Minister in 1929.

Mr MacDonald quelled any fears the King had, reassuring him that a “simple, honest approach would be more than adequate for the task”.


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It was suggested that the author Rudyard Kipling could write the speech, relieving George of yet another anxiety.

When the Empire made its first step towards becoming a Commonwealth in 1931, George was called on to stir feelings of unity rather than separation, with Mr MacDonald urging George to give a message on Christmas Day to lift spirits following financial hardship.

He agreed, and on Christmas Day, 1932, for the first time, Britons around the UK and people around the Empire listened as the King entered their homes through their radio sets.

Such was the novelty of the speech at the time that the newspapers covered the event with great spirit – one Australian publication advertising the speech as “proof of the innate solidarity of the Empire”.

It has been reported that because of his days in the Navy, George felt most comfortable when in small rooms.

He decided to make the speech from the box room under the stairs at Sandringham House and not in the grand drawing room where the mini-studio was set up for the official photograph.

A report about the time said: “Thick cloth coated the table, as the King was so nervous that his shaking hands caused the papers to rustle into the microphone.”

So successful and soothing were the King’s words, from that day on George was given the moniker “Grandpa England”.

This was adopted by his granddaughter, Elizabeth II, our current monarch.

Despite modern day competition, the monarch’s Christmas Speech has become an annual institution that attracts a large audience.

It is so popular that TheTalko reported even Royal Families abroad “like to tune in for the broadcast”.

In a nod to her adoption of modern technologies, the Queen this year will also broadcast her speech via Amazon’s Alexa-enabled devices.

Users will simply have to ask their Amazon Echo speaker or other smart-devices, “Alexa, play The Queen’s Christmas Day Message” or “Alexa, play Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas Day Message” after 3pm and a recording of the speech will be played.

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