For months, the anxiety had built. As early as last spring, Prince Harry began floating the idea to Meghan Markle: How would she feel about meeting his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II? Though brother Prince William had taken five years to introduce Duchess Kate, Harry was “keen,” a pal reveals in the new issue of Us Weekly, to have his girlfriend meet the woman he once called “the example I aspire to.”
Understandably, the actress was nervous, says a Markle friend, “in the way you would be if you were meeting your future in-laws.” But after their early September tea at Scotland’s Balmoral Castle, the queen’s summer estate, she was glowing. “To be able to meet her through his lens, not just with his honor and respect for her as the monarch, but the love that he has for her as his grandmother, all of those layers have been so important for me,” Markle explained in her and Harry’s November 27 engagement interview, “so that when I met her, I had such a deep understanding and of course incredible respect for being able to have that time with her.”
The queen was also charmed, says a Harry source: “It went well. It’ll no doubt be the first of many encounters they have.”
The next is slated for Christmas Eve. Though in the past, the matriarch’s annual three-day yuletide fete has had a strict spouses-only policy, Harry’s bride-to-be scored an invite. “Attending as a fiancée is a first for the family,” notes an insider. But with her loved ones based 5,000-plus miles away in Los Angeles, inviting Kensington Palace’s newest resident to tag along seemed polite. Says the insider, “Given that Meghan doesn’t have family in the U.K., it’s only right that she spends Christmas with Harry and his.”
And though some outlets have reported the 36-year-old former Suits star will only make a guest appearance at the affair, a source close to Harry, 33, insists she will be on hand for the full 72 hours of festivities at the queen’s 20,000-acre Sandringham spread, some 112 miles north of London.
“Harry asked the queen for permission last month,” explains the source, “and she is delighted to have Harry bring his fiancée. It is a family occasion, after all, and Meghan is very much family now.”
Come December 24, Markle will have her own spot on the gift table in the red drawing room. As royal relatives arrive that afternoon, a team of chauffeurs and valets will carry in their gifts, arranging them by recipient on the oversize trestle table.
Directly after the 4 p.m. tea, the group will swap gag gifts. One year, former Kensington Palace chef Darren McGrady recalls to us, “Princess Anne bought Prince Charles a Britannia toilet seat, because he collected them.”
With girts unwrapped, the group adorns itself in finery. Though Christmas Eve dinner isn’t particularly festive — “There’s nothing Christmas-y until the next day,” notes McGrady — black tie is a must. (For her first year at Sandringham, Kate packed up to five outfits a day!)
Next morning brings an early call. Ahead of the mandatory 11 a.m. Christmas Day service at the estate’s St. Mary Magdalene Church, a traditional English breakfast is served. More food comes after church. Lunch features two roast turkeys — a third is sent up to the nursery, where it’s carved up for the tiniest heirs — Brussels sprouts, carrots, potatoes and a flaming Christmas pudding.
With full stomachs (and just a few hours before indulging in a three-course dinner and chocolate yule log) everyone retires to the fire-lit saloon to listen to the queen’s taped speech. Notes a source, “In this year’s address, she will congratulate Harry and Meghan!”
For more on the pair’s holiday plans — including the one event Markle will opt out of — pick up the new issue of Us Weekly, on stands now!