LONDON — A combination of health issues and coronavirus restrictions has kept Queen Elizabeth II from public engagements since October, but the 95-year-old monarch made a brief appearance in British homes on Saturday afternoon, speaking about her own grief in a particularly personal Christmas Day message.
Because of a spike in coronavirus infections, Elizabeth didn’t host family members at her Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, for the second year. Confirmed cases hit record highs in Britain this past week.
In her speech, Elizabeth paid tribute to her late husband, Prince Philip, who died in April at age 99.
There was “one familiar laugh missing this year,” she said of Philip, whose “mischievous inquiring twinkle was as bright at the end as when I first set eyes on him.”
“Although it’s a time of great happiness and good cheer for many, Christmas can be hard for those who have lost loved ones,” she said. “This year, especially, I understand why.”
While delivering her remarks, the queen sat at a desk alongside a framed photograph of herself with Philip, taken in 2007 to mark their 60th wedding anniversary. Royal watchers noted that pinned to the queen’s bright red Christmas dress was a sapphire brooch she wore on her honeymoon.
She said she empathized with others who had lost loved ones and acknowledged the ongoing impact of the pandemic. As usual, she commented on some of the news from the royal family over the past year, including the births of four great grandchildren.
The queen also said she was “proud beyond words” that eldest son Prince Charles, and her grandson Prince William, were following in her late husband’s footsteps in “taking seriously our stewardship of the environment” and in particular noted their participation at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
Unsurprisingly, she skipped over the controversies that hit the family in 2021, including Prince Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview and the allegations that Prince Andrew engaged in sexual abuse, which he denies.
Shortly after the speech was broadcast, British police said that a 19-year-old man from Southampton had been arrested on the grounds of Windsor Castle earlier on Christmas Day. The intruder was in possession of an “offensive weapon” and did not enter any buildings, the Thames Valley Police said.
The intrusion had no impact on the queen’s broadcast.
Every Christmas, millions in Britain and in 54 Commonwealth nations tune in to hear the monarch deliver her Christmas message. The queen’s speech is a fixture of Christmas Day, as familiar as mince pies, Yorkshire puddings and silly Christmas jumpers.
Elizabeth — who would celebrate 70 years on the throne next year — has delivered a Christmas address every year of her reign except in 1969, when she apparently decided that the public had had enough of the royals following the BBC broadcast of a two-hour documentary.
The speech is one of the few she writes without government advice. As she is also head of the Church of England, there’s often a religious thread. She also typically reflects on current events. In recent years, in her own uncontroversial way, she has touched on everything from the pandemic to a fatal fire at a London apartment complex to the “bumpy” year of 2019, which was dominated by Brexit turbulence.
In her 2017 Christmas message, the queen spoke of looking forward to welcoming “new members” to the royal family, which many took as a reference to Harry and Meghan’s then-upcoming wedding, as well as to Prince Louis, who would be born in April.
In an era of fragmented media, huddling around the telly to watch a nonagenarian monarch deliver a five-minute speech is still surprisingly popular. Last year, it topped the TV ratings on Christmas Day.
Perhaps that’s because people like the continuity.
Writing in the Financial Times, columnist Henry Mance said: “What exactly is the Queen’s message? How does it differ from the previous year’s? Who cares? What it lacks in scripting and acting, the address makes up for in familiarity.”
The queen was hospitalized overnight in October for what Buckingham Palace said were “preliminary investigations.” Afterward, the palace reported, doctors advised her to rest and undertake only “light duties.” Since then, she has missed some high-profile events because of health issues, including a Remembrance Sunday service to honor the country’s war dead, a staple on the royal calendar. The palace said she sprained her back in November.
She has continued to meet with ambassadors and dignitaries, but those meetings have taken place by video or inside palace walls.
It was not her health but coronavirus concerns that were mentioned when the queen canceled her customary pre-Christmas lunch at Buckingham Palace, as well as her trip to Sandringham, where the royals usually assemble for Christmas.
British media reported that William was spending the holiday in Norfolk with his wife, children and in-laws.
The queen, meanwhile, was joined at Windsor by Prince Charles, his wife, Camilla, and a handful of others.
In other words, the queen had her Christmas plans upended, like so many other Britons.
But for many of her subjects, at least for a few minutes in a televised broadcast on Christmas Day, the queen was also offering a sense of stability in unstable times.
“While covid again means we can’t celebrate quite as we may have wished,” the queen said, “we can still enjoy the many happy traditions.”
This report has been updated.