The "big four" on their way to attend Christmas Day church service on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, England.
Stephen Pond | Getty Images
CNBC Travel

Seeing the British royals up close on Christmas Day, here's what we know

Anyone can line up to see the queen, her children and some of her grandchildren as they attend church on Christmas Day — and last year my mom and I braved the cold to spot all of them, including Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, as well as Prince William and Catherine (also known as Kate), the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, a county in the east of England, has been home to British monarchs since 1862, with the surrounding countryside made up of 15,000 acres of farmland and 3,500 acres of woodland. The royal family has spent the holidays there since 1988. Each year on Christmas morning, they walk from the hall to the 16th century St. Mary Magdalene Church for an 11 a.m. service.

Queues mandatory, gifts optional

Members of the public stand on either side of the path leading up to the church to see the whole family — except for the Queen, who goes by car. But it took a little planning and some patience to make sure we could get a good view.

Before we could catch a glimpse of the family, we had to be prepared to stand in line. Queuing, as Brits call it, is almost a national art, and my skills were tested as we waited patiently for around two hours. Visitors can drive into the parking lot next to the Sandringham Cafe or leave their cars on the highway close to the cafe, before lining up.

The "queue" at Sandringham to meet the British royal family on Christmas Day.

We arrived around 9 a.m. and stood queuing on a grass verge next to the highway that runs north along Sandringham Estate itself, chatting to people who had driven two hours or more to catch a glimpse of the family. There seemed to be hundreds of people waiting on the tree-lined road, but many we spoke to were veterans and assured us that we had a good chance of getting past security and through the gates to the church.

Some clutched flowers or gifts, in the hope of being able to hand them over to a royal family member, but most were simply bundled up in hats and gloves as the temperature hovered around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. We were well-prepared with tea in a Thermos flask and homemade mince pies, while others brought portable seats and tartan blankets with them to brave the cold.

Velvet, feathers and the 'big four'

At about 10:30 a.m. the line started to edge forward and eventually crept around a corner and toward the main church gates.

Security was tight but jovial, and after a bag search, we strode across some grassland to reach the path leading up to the church. The crowd was three or four people deep, but we had a good view of the large gates the family would walk through. A woman next to me wondered aloud whether William and Catherine would bring any of their children (they didn't), and if the supposed rift between Catherine and Meghan would be resolved.

Photographers jockey for position in anticipation of the arrival of the British royal family.

Newspaper photographers had a separate section close to the church, and they jostled for position on more than a dozen stepladders (a less than glamorous scene), and some had foot-long camera lenses that stood on their own stools. Arthur Edwards, a royal photographer at The Sun newspaper since 1977, seemed to be the person in charge. A few weeks before Christmas, Prince Charles had called Edwards "a jolly good bloke," at a celebration of the prince's 70th birthday.

Just before 11 a.m., the hall gates opened, and Prince Charles appeared, hands in pockets, followed by the "big four": William and Catherine, who walked next to Meghan, who was arm-in-arm with Harry on her other side. People called out "Happy Christmas" as they went along, and they smiled and nodded.

Crowds gather to watch the British royal family walk from Sandringham Estate to the 16th century St. Mary Magdalene Church on December 25, 2018.
Stephen Pond | Getty Images

I'd previously seen some of the royal family from afar, but up close they had star power, and it felt like a real show for the cameras as well as the public. Handbags and shoes were carefully coordinated with head pieces decorated with velvet, feathers or netting. And despite the freezing temperatures, Meghan walked along with her coat undone and baby bump visible (baby Archie was born around five months later).

People wait for hours in the cold to catch a glimpse of the British royal family.
Mark Cuthbert

The "big four" were followed by other family members, including Princess Beatrice, daughter of Prince Andrew, who walked next to Autumn Phillips, the wife of Peter Phillips, the queen's eldest grandchild. Princess Eugenie attended with her husband Jack Brooksbank, as well as two of the queen's great-grandchildren, Savannah and Isla Phillips.

Autumn Phillips and Princess Beatrice at the Sandringham Estate on December 25, 2018.
UK Press Pool

Where's the queen?

It was hard to spot the queen, who arrived by car with Prince Andrew along a different path, but those closest to the church near the bank of photographers would have had the best view. Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, did not attend due to a heavy cold, and neither did Prince Philip, the queen's husband.

Queen Elizabeth II leaves St. Mary Magdalene Church on December 25, 2018.
Stephen Pond | Getty Images

The atmosphere felt exciting but respectful, and aides handed out carol sheets so fans could sing along with the service, a nice touch.

After the rush of seeing almost the whole royal family, I suddenly felt the cold and headed to the Sandringham Cafe for coffee (it's open for a few hours on Christmas morning). But that meant I missed the post-service meet-and-greet: my mom shook hands with Harry and Meghan, while security personnel collected the flowers and gifts handed to the family.

However, heading from the cafe back to the main church gates meant I was in prime position to see the queen leave by car — she was driven along the short pathway leading from the gates toward the highway we had lined up along earlier. I saw a flash of pale grey and bright pink and a gloved hand at the window as her car slowly went past.

Those who wait until after the church service ends may be able to see Queen Elizabeth II as she leaves.

This year's royal Christmas church outing will be a little different. Meghan and Harry are to spend the holidays with the duchess's mother, Doria Ragland, instead of Sandringham. And despite Prince Andrew stepping back from royal duties after a disastrous interview about his friendship with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, he is reported to be attending church on Christmas Day this year.