Tomorrow, 30 or more of the Queen’s nearest and dearest will descend on her Sandringham estate.
Although imposing, the main house is small by Royal standards, with accommodation described as ‘cramped’ – which means finding space for the Monarch’s expanding brood requires exhaustive logistical planning.
In recent years, some of the more junior family members have found themselves billeted in servants’ quarters, while others take over cottages on the Norfolk estate.
If nothing else, depositing Harry and Meghan with William and Kate over at Anmer Hall, the Cambridges’ stunning ten-bedroom Georgian pile, would help ease the crush.
Harry and Meghan (pictured last Christmas with William and Kate) will be housed with 30 or more guests at the Queen’s estate in Sandringham this festive period
It is only a couple of miles away and the arrangement worked well last year, when the Duke of Sussex rhapsodised about their ‘fantastic’ stay.
And what better way to signal that tensions between the two Royal wives are not as serious as suggested?
Yet The Mail on Sunday has established that this Christmas, the Sussexes will be housed with the other guests – ‘packed in like sardines’, according to a source – under the Queen’s roof.
Against reports of growing distance between the two couples, it will be impossible for some not to interpret this as a snub to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Spacious, peaceful and extensively refurbished, Anmer Hall would have provided pregnant Meghan with a welcome haven away from overflowing Sandringham House.
Even at the best of times, Christmas at the Queen’s Norfolk residence can be daunting.
Little if anything is left to chance. Timetables are placed in guests’ rooms, for instance, to ensure no one is late for drinks and meals.
And if you are a Los Angeles native still learning to navigate The Firm’s infinitely complex social mores, it is more daunting still.
The main house of the Sandringham Estate (pictured) is small by Royal standards, with accommodation described as ‘cramped’
Having her sister-in-law close at hand would help. But then few doubt that a froideur between the two duchesses does exist, even if it has sometimes been overplayed.
Sources say Meghan and Kate are ‘very different people’ and simply ‘don’t get on’.
It also emerged that Kate was left ‘in tears’ after a fitting for Princess Charlotte’s bridesmaid’s dress before Harry and Meghan’s wedding in May.
One Royal insider gives a prosaic explanation for the Sussexes’ seasonal sleeping arrangements. Last Christmas it was felt that allowing Harry and Meghan, then unmarried, to spend the night at the main house would be inappropriate.
Inviting Meghan to share in the festivities in the first place had been a break with convention – there was no need to shatter protocol completely. Anmer Hall offered the perfect solution.
But their marriage changed everything. It would now be unusual, said the source, for the couple not to stay with the Queen.
Even so, it is a decision that will inevitably stoke further speculation. Certainly it is unlikely to halt the drip, drip of ‘War of the Waleses’ stories.
How Meghan, naturally forthright, must be struggling to hold her tongue.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex stayed with the Cambridges at the nearby Anmer Hall (pictured) last Christmas
It was reported last week that she put paid to her husband’s plans to join the traditional Boxing Day pheasant shoot at Sandringham, just as she did last year, because of her opposition to bloodsports.
Insiders now say this claim, which adds another layer to the notion of Meghan as dictatorial – ‘What Meghan wants, Meghan gets,’ as Harry is said to have put it – is wrong.
Harry did indeed miss last year’s shoot, but only because he had to drive to London for a meeting the following day. And this year nothing has yet been decided, according to a Palace source.
True, the Duchess is an ardent animal lover but she is understood to be relaxed about Harry’s hobby.
So much so that on several occasions this year she has accompanied her husband on shoots, even though she has not actively participated herself. The most recent was earlier this month at a friend’s Wiltshire estate.
A source said shooting is ‘ingrained in Harry’s nature’, adding that ‘Meghan would never try to change that about him’.
The only public window into the Royal Family’s Christmas will be the 11am annual outing to St Mary Magdalene Church on the big day itself.
After last year’s service, Meghan clung to Harry’s arm, walking among the crowds alongside William and Kate, cementing her place in the so-called ‘Fab Four’.
One Royal insider said it was felt last year that allowing Harry and Meghan, then unmarried, to spend the night at the main house would be inappropriate
The message from senior courtiers is to expect the same united front this year, not to mention some carefully chosen outfits.
With every scrap of body language likely to be scrutinised, neither duchess is likely to betray any hint of friction.
Meghan is an actress after all, and the Duchess of Cambridge is also a seasoned performer who rarely puts a foot wrong.
‘It will all be friendly – there is no way that you are going to be unfriendly to someone on Christmas Day,’ said an insider.
‘Especially when Meghan looks like she is about to have a baby at any minute. All will be smiles.’
There was one small hitch outside the church last year. Meghan’s curtsy to the Queen ended up being more of a wobbly bob.
In comparison, Kate’s was executed perfectly. It is impossible to imagine that the Duchess of Sussex will make the same mistake this year.
The regimented schedule begins on Christmas Eve when the Royal clan arrive at Sandringham in order of seniority, with Charles and Camilla the last to appear, mid-afternoon.
This prevents the chaos of everyone pitching up at the same time and limits pressure on staff.
Despite the scale of the event, the Queen is keen that as many staff as possible enjoy Christmas with their own families, and has a scaled-down retinue.
But Harry and Meghan’s move to Sandringham could be interpreted as a snub amid rumours of tension between the two couples
On arrival, the Royals are shown to their rooms. There are thought to be 29 bedrooms in the house, including some for staff.
Each of the Queen’s children have their own room. Her grandchildren are all treated equally.
Those likely to have servants’ rooms include the Queen’s nephew, the Earl of Snowdon, his wife Serena and their children. His sister Lady Sarah Chatto, her husband Daniel and two children are also likely to be included.
The family follow the German tradition of opening presents on Christmas Eve. Small jokey gifts are preferred. Harry was once given a ‘grow-your-own girlfriend’ kit from Kate, while he is said to have given his grandmother a shower cap.
Princess Diana famously made a faux pas during her first Christmas by attempting to impress with cashmere sweaters.
A source said: ‘The Royal Family is very frugal when it comes to Christmas, it tends to be nothing lavish – that is taboo. With the children, it is slightly different – they will get the sort of presents most children expect.’
After briefly retiring to their rooms, the family reappear for a black-tie dinner. The Duke of Edinburgh, now 97, will spend some time at Wood Farm on the estate, a modest refuge of tranquillity that he has enjoyed for many years.
He was seen nearby yesterday, driving himself around in a Land Rover. But tomorrow he will join the Queen in the main house.
Across Christmas, numerous outfit changes are required, with the Duchess of York once complaining that she was obliged to change her clothes seven times in 24 hours.
While this will probably not be a concern for fashion addict Meghan, she will have to adhere to the usual Royal dress code – particularly as a house guest of the Queen. The black nail polish she showcased at a recent awards ceremony would be considered attention-seeking.
Next morning the Royals wake up to stockings by their beds filled with small gifts and fruit, before enjoying a full English breakfast served at around 8am. Getting ready for church is the next task.
After the service, which Prince Philip is expected to attend this year, everyone returns to the main house for drinks before Christmas lunch.
Despite the formality of the occasion, there is no seating plan and no starter.
Guests are served turkey, which is carved by the head chef at the table, followed by Christmas pudding and a cheese course.
There may be time for the family to wander around the grounds, but they are back by 3pm for the Queen’s Christmas message.
After a tea at 4pm, featuring Christmas cake, mince pies and a chocolate yule log, Meghan – who is luckily eating for two – will sit down to another meal at 8pm; a buffet of cold meats, salads and potatoes.
After Christmas, the Cambridges are expected to take George, Charlotte and Louis to the Middleton home in Bucklebury, Berkshire
The family will always find time for parlour games, with charades a particular favourite.
The rules continue until bedtime, with no one allowed to retire before Her Majesty, who has been known to stay up until midnight.
A Royal insider said: ‘Everybody is on parade when they go to Sandringham. This is not a family sitting around having a jolly time relaxing.
They are all eyeing each other up and seeing who is up and who is down the pecking order. It’s full of tension.
‘Rather like Camilla, who is said to hate Sandringham, Harry and Meghan will be out of the door as fast as they possibly can.’
After Christmas, the Cambridges are expected to take George, Charlotte and Louis to the Middleton home in Bucklebury, Berkshire.
The Sussexes, meanwhile, will probably head to their bolthole in the Cotswolds. It is likely that at some point they will see Doria, Meghan’s mother, who last week was still in Los Angeles but is expected to be flying in to the UK at some point during the holiday.
While Doria would have been made welcome at Sandringham she will not be attending the activities there.
‘Meghan certainty wants her mother around at Christmas, particularly as her father is making such a nuisance of himself at the moment,’ said the insider.
‘Meghan is isolated, things aren’t going as well as they should be – she needs her mum.’