Royal butler’s secrets - Paul Burrell’s festive etiquette tips

Paul at his Farndon florist and gift shop

Paul at his Farndon florist and gift shop - Credit: Archant

We are loving everything House of Windsor right now, from the birth of Prince Louis, to the two royal weddings and the announcement that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are expecting their first child. How can they not be a source of endless fascination?

Paul Burrell

Paul Burrell - Credit: Archant

It’s been a vintage year for our royal family and they are sure to be celebrating the festive season in some style.

But if the only thing regal about your own Christmas is listening to the Queen’s speech, don’t despair. While we can’t be actual bona fide members of the royal family, there’s nothing to stop us injecting a little bit of regal je ne sais quoi into our own celebrations.

And who better to ask how to do Christmas with a majestic flourish than Paul Burrell?

Princess Diana’s butler and HM The Queen’s footman Paul, who has a florist and gift shop in Farndon glittering with gorgeous festive goodies, was on hand to take us through the protocol that makes the Windsors’ Christmas so special.

Table settings

Table settings - Credit: Archant

‘It’s Downton Abbey, only for real,’ Paul tells me before revealing some fascinating insights into royal etiquette.

‘First, the table has to be dressed to perfection with every place setting measured out precisely using a special stick.’

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Paul demonstrates how the table might be laid out, using his very own set of Garrard silver cutlery commemorating Charles and Diana’s wedding, which he couldn’t resist buying when it came up for auction.

‘If you have 200 people for a royal banquet you want to see a regiment of glasses lined up perfectly,’ he explains.

Each diner has their own cruet set

Each diner has their own cruet set - Credit: Archant

‘Each guest has their own cruet set with the salt on the right, the mustard on the left and the pepper at the back. The Queen has particular ones made especially for her, and only her.’

‘The water glass needs to be prominent as that is the one you’re supposed to be using most of all. For water glasses you can afford to have some fun, it can have a festive design or be a different colour. The white wine glass is next and should be slightly smaller and you hold this by the stem to keep the wine cold. The red wine glass you hold by the bowl because that is served at room temperature, although the Queen Mother used to ask for her Chateau Margaux to be placed on a hot plate, which is sacrilege! The last glass on the table is the champagne flute. I also think the saucer shape is fun.’

Dressing for the occasion is essential and not only for dinner. A royal guest might pack for a shoot, lunch and afternoon tea before pulling out all the stops at dinner, which is always in candlelight and at 8.15pm.

‘Her Majesty always changes for dinner and does so, even when she is dining alone,’ reveals Paul.

Treasured pictures of Princess Diana and Her Majesty, The Queen

Treasured pictures of Princess Diana and Her Majesty, The Queen - Credit: Archant

‘Often I have seen her in her gown with her diamonds shimmering in the candlelight. It’s tradition. It’s custom.’

Christmas Eve at Sandringham is a magical affair and more importanly than that, it is a family occasion.

‘The Queen loves to decorate the tree,’ recalls Paul.

‘The bottom half of the Christmas tree is left bare so that the Queen can decorate it with her grandchildren.’

When guests finally come down to dinner on Christmas Eve they are greeted by a trolley groaning with drinks.

‘The Queen loves a dry Martini, but her preferred tipple is gin and Dubonnet.’

Dinner on Christmas Eve is a tantalising sight. A long table is decorated with candles and flowers. Explains Paul: ‘Menus are printed for each meal, which appear in French on the table and the Queen decides where everyone sits by using a leather board with a window for each place setting into which she slides a card with the guest’s name.

‘Generally the most senior male guest will sit on the Queen’s right hand side, the most senior female on Prince Philip’s right and each place setting has a name card, so nobody can be confused.’

On Christmas Eve, each guest has a section of the table allocated to them, where the Queen places a gift. Then other members of the family follow suit, until the table is laden with presents, then the doors are thrown open to reveal the treasures within.

Church is the tradition for Christmas morning before lunch is served at 1pm.

Recalls Paul: ‘The chef puts on his whites and comes into the dining room to carve and there is Christmas pudding afterwards. Then while the rest of the family settle down to watch the Queen’s speech Her Majesty discreetly disappears and takes her dogs for a walk.’

Probably one of his most memorable sights is seeing the royals gathered around the table wearing paper crowns from their Christmas crackers.

‘The Queen will wear a paper crown. Yes, absolutely!’ says Paul. ‘She’ll join in the fun.’