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What to Know About the Royal Family’s Easter Traditions

7 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

The eyes of the world have been on the British royal family this Easter, with the holiday falling just over a week after Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales, announced that she had been diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing “preventative chemotherapy.”

Kensington Palace initially pinned Easter as the date after which she might be expected to restart public engagements following a planned abdominal surgery in January, but on March 22, Kate disclosed that post-operation tests revealed cancer had been present, leading her to start treatment. She will return to official duties when cleared to do so by her medical team.

The news followed an announcement in February that Kate’s father-in-law, King Charles III, was also diagnosed with cancer and would be postponing public-facing duties as he received treatment.

Easter, which typically sees the extended royal family gather at Windsor Castle, was a scaled back celebration this year. Kate, her husband Prince William, and their three children—George, Charlotte, and Louis—were not in attendance.

Kate’s announcement revealing her cancer diagnosis—which royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams calls “perhaps the most courageous broadcast made on health matters ever by a public figure in Britain”—changes the Easter holiday “enormously.”

“It’s a deeply sobering experience for all of us,” he tells TIME in a phone call. 

In years past, Easter was a relatively low-key holiday in comparison to Christmas, Fitzwilliams says, but that was tipped to be different this Easter in the wake of a turbulent period that has transfixed the world.

“The international attention will be enormous and that’s never happened before,” he says. 

Here’s what you need to know about the royal's family's Easter traditions and the 2024 festivities.

What are the royal family’s Easter traditions? 

Easter weekend festivities begin on Maundy Thursday, the final Thursday before Easter Sunday. The tradition on this day, which dates back centuries, is for the reigning King or Queen to attend a church service and give out “Maundy money” to local people. 

Early in her reign, Queen Elizabeth II began traveling to cathedrals and abbeys outside of London to distribute the gifts around the country. Fitzwilliams says the late Queen was “very fond” of the Maundy Thursday service. 

Each recipient receives two small leather purses—one containing a small amount of ordinary coins and the second containing Maundy coins up to the value of the sovereign’s age. Although legal tender, the coins are often kept as keepsakes.

King Charles continued the tradition last year, having already filled in for his mother’s duties in 2022 before her death. The King’s wife of 19 years, Queen Camilla, attended Thursday’s service at Worcester Cathedral in his stead this year, but the King recorded an audio message that was broadcast during the service.

In the message, the King stressed the theme of service to others, saying that we “need and benefit greatly from those who extend the hand of friendship to us, especially in a time of need,” and reiterated his coronation pledge “to follow Christ’s example—not to be served but to serve.” 

It wasn’t the first recorded message from a royal on Easter, although it has not been an annual tradition. Then-Prince Charles released a televised message on Easter 2018 and his mother recorded her first-ever Easter message in 2020 near the start of the pandemic.

For Thursday’s event, Worcester Cathedral Flower Guild also crafted Maundy Service nosegays—sustainable, locally sourced flower arrangements—for children to present to Queen Camilla, an annual tradition that dates back to 600 A.D., according to the royal family’s X (formerly Twitter) account.

Over the Easter weekend, the extended royal family traditionally gathers at Windsor. 

“When we’d pull into Windsor Castle for Easter court, it was always fun and exciting,” Darren McGrady, who was personal chef to the royal family from 1982 to 1993 and then for Princess Diana until her death in 1997, tells TIME in a phone call.  

On Good Friday, chefs made hot cross buns, which they would send up for afternoon tea, says McGrady, who now runs a catering business in the U.S. The tradition continued as of 2022, when royal pastry chefs shared a social media video of making hot cross buns on Good Friday.

Christians traditionally eat fish instead of meat on Good Friday, so as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the late Queen then enjoyed a hake fish supper, McGrady says.

On Easter Sunday, the royal family traditionally walks to a church service at St George’s Chapel, a 14th century building on the castle grounds. The walk is about 10 minutes downhill, and in past years, they often took a car back up as it is a steep climb, McGrady says.

Easter lunch after church in the monarchy’s “heyday” involved 20 or 30 royals around the table, McGrady says. The menu was “nearly always lamb,” such as a roast leg of lamb with red currant jelly. 

That was followed by afternoon tea, accompanied by a “huge selection” of decorated chocolate eggs. In one of McGrady’s favorite Easter memories at Windsor Castle, the former royal chef put a clock and sugar mouse on a chocolate Easter egg, inspired by the nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickory Dock,” and sent it up to the nursery. The footman brought it back down with the head bitten off the mouse—Prince William, around seven years old, had reportedly taken off a chunk.

McGrady says Queen Elizabeth II was a “chocoholic” with a penchant for dark chocolate, something she would give up during her Lent fast and looked forward to enjoying on Easter, but “King Charles, however, is not a huge fan of chocolate at all.” 

Otherwise, McGrady says the King enjoyed the traditional Easter menu, as the monarch likes fish and “absolutely adores” lamb. Royal expert Ingrid Seward told The Sun last year that Easter traditions would carry on after his mother’s death: "Charles is a traditionalist, so I am sure he will do things as they have always been done since he was a child.”  

What happened at the royal Easter Sunday 2024 service?

The King and Queen attended the Easter Sunday church service at Windsor. Following the service, they were seen greeting visitors, shaking their hands and exchanging well-wishes. 

Ahead of Easter, Fitzwilliams called King Charles’ expected attendance “very good news” and “very significant."

Kate, William, and their children, however, did not attend church on Easter Sunday.

The family has lived since 2022 at Adelaide Cottage on the Windsor estate. Kate’s video announcement of her cancer diagnosis was filmed at Windsor on March 20 and released on March 22. It has been reported the couple traveled after that announcement to Anmer Hall, a royal residence in Norfolk.

Kensington Palace declined to comment on where the family spends their private time.

With Kate and William absent, and William’s brother Prince Harry, his wife Meghan Markle, and their two children in California, the Easter gathering was smaller than usual.

The King and his wife, Queen Camilla, were joined by the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh—Prince Edward and Sophie—and their son, James, Earl of Wessex, along with the King’s sister, Princess Anne, who was joined by her husband, Sir Timothy Laurence. Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, were also in attendance.

The pared-back celebration is a reflection of the private battles the family is facing, experts noted. According to McGrady: “I think it will be a quiet time for the King, and that’s probably a good thing as he’s battling his cancer. Easter will be more of a time of reflection than a happy family get-together.”

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Write to Simmone Shah at simmone.shah@time.com