SANDRINGHAM – Queen Elizabeth II and her close family spent a gala Christmas Day at her palatial countryside retreat, feasting on locally-reared turkey after attending a church service.
The queen's traditional pre-recorded Christmas message was broadcast throughout Britain and the Commonwealth nations Wednesday afternoon. Britain's longest reigning monarch emphasized the need for forgiveness and reconciliation and admitted it had been a difficult year.
Talking about the desire to follow the example set by Jesus Christ, she said: “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."
Surrounded by family photos, the queen also spoke about the sacrifices made by the World War II generation and paid tribute to the armed forces and Britain's emergency services.
Noting the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that liberated Europe from the Nazis, she said today's challenges are different — and made what for her was a rare mention of climate change.
“The challenges many people face today may be different to those once faced by my generation, but I have been struck by how new generations have brought a similar sense of purpose to issues such as protecting our environment and our climate,” she said.
Her comment about a “bumpy” year was seen as referring both to Britain's laborious exit from the European Union, which is now expected on Jan. 31 after voters gave the pro-Brexit Conservative Party a comfortable majority in Parliament, and to the royal family's difficulties.
The message was recorded before her 98-year-old husband Prince Philip was hospitalized for four days for treatment of a “pre-existing condition” that was not revealed to the public. He was able to join the rest of the family for Christmas.
It was a festive day as the queen was joined at the Christmas church service 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.
Other senior royals also trooped to the morning service at St. Mary Magdalene Church near her Sandringham estate in eastern England.
George and Charlotte walked to church hand in hand with their parents William and Kate. Prince Charles, their grandfather, walked next to them. Charles, William and George are in line to follow the queen to the throne.
The queen arrived in a chauffeur-driven maroon Bentley with Charles' wife, Camilla.
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.”
Royal 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. Lawyers representing Epstein's victims are seeking Andrew's testimony for civil suits against the estate of Epstein, who died in prison in August in what New York officials said was a suicide.
The royal 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.
Some British newspapers have interpreted their decision to spend Christmas with Meghan's mother as a snub to the queen and other royals.
Gregory Katz reported from London.