Page last updated at 14:57 GMT, Thursday, 25 December 2008

Young princes centre of attention

By Colette Hume
BBC News, Sandringham

The Queen
The Queen and her family greeted waiting crowds after they left church

The Royal Family have gathered for their traditional Christmas at the royal estate at Sandringham in Norfolk. Two royals in particular were eagerly awaited by the crowds who turned out.

Wellwishers began arriving at Sandringham shortly before 08.00 GMT for one of the few chances to see the Queen and her family close up.

And the crowd of more than 2,000 people were rewarded with a full turn out of senior royals.

Secretly serving with his regiment in Afghanistan last year, Prince Harry was absent from those festivities.

This year the 24-year-old prince and his older brother Prince William were two of the most keenly anticipated royals.

William turned heads as he continued to sport his full beard, and Harry was seen laughing and joking with his cousins Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie.

Missing from the festivities were the young princes' girlfriends Kate Middleton and Chelsey Davey, although the pair have spent some time with the princes here at Sandringham.

Short journey

Christmas Day is strictly family only. Protocol dictates that Her Majesty should be the last arrive.

So shortly before 11.45 GMT the rest of the family walked the short journey from Sandringham House to the 16th Century church of St Mary Magdalene for the Christmas service before the Queen made her way to the church by car accompanied by Prince Edward's wife, the Countess of Wessex.

After the service, which lasted just under an hour, the Queen and her family greeted the waiting crowds, spending around 15 minutes receiving flowers and gifts from a long queue of children.

For many of the wellwishers, the annual visit to Sandringham to see Her Majesty is part of their own Christmas ritual.

One of those who queued in the cold told me: "I wouldn't miss it, it's so lovely to see the Queen and her family looking so happy and relaxed."

Marriage speculation

It was the first royal Christmas for a newcomer to the Royal Family - Autumn Phillips, the Canadian wife of the Queen's eldest grandchild Peter.

The couple were married at St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle earlier this year. Autumn clutched Peter's hand tightly as they made their way into the church.

Princes Harry and William
Prince William was joined by brother Harry who was in Afghanistan last year

Speculation continues about the marriage plans of Peter's sister Zara. Some royal watchers believe her engagement to the England rugby player Mike Tindall could be announced early in the New Year.

Like millions of other families across the UK and beyond, the Queen and her family sit down to a full Christmas lunch with all the trimmings, then at three o'clock they will gather around the television to watch Her Majesty's annual Christmas broadcast.

It is the one chance in the year that the Queen is able to speak in her own words to her subjects here in the UK and the millions more people across the Commonwealth.

Speech focus

Last year much of the focus of that Christmas message was on troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This year the economic downturn and the effect on British families will focus strongly in the message.

The Queen has broadcast a Christmas message almost every year since the start of her reign in February 1952.

The exception was 1969, the year of the documentary The Royal Family was broadcast.

Prince Andrew revealed last year that Her Majesty does not enjoy watching the broadcast surrounded by her family and will often watch the message alone in another room.

The rest of the day will be spent relaxing at the house - the Queen may go for a walk with her dogs - before preparations begin for the traditional Boxing Day shoot.

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