Christmas is a time for traditions

Christmas is a very special time at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Trees spangled with fairy lights ornament the site, doorways are garlanded with greenery and decorations, the Chelsea Pensioners enjoy carols and Christmas crafts – and a sense of anticipation is in the air. This year, the run-up to the big day has felt particularly festive with snow blanketing the roofs and sparkling on the quadrangles. And Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas at the Royal Hospital without the three landmark traditions that the Chelsea Pensioners celebrate with such enthusiasm. As one Chelsea Pensioner puts it: “Christmas is an exciting time here. Everyone joins in and we have a whale of a time”.

The Stirring of the Christmas Pudding

The first celebration of the season has taken place here for the past 80 years.  Chelsea Pensioners and staff gather in the Great Hall for the Stirring of the Christmas Pudding ceremony – which opens with rousing Christmas music from the Royal Hospital band. Before they are added to a giant mixing bowl, the Chaplain blesses the impressive array of ingredients on display – which includes 70 eggs, five kilograms of currants, not to mention 14 pints of Guinness, plus rum, sherry, brandy and port. One by one, the Pensioners and staff add ingredients and give the mixture a good stir.

Afterwards, the mixture is taken to the Royal Hospital kitchen where it’s later divided into delicious individual puddings for the Chelsea Pensioners to enjoy.

"We’re here to keep tradition going. It’s wonderful" - Helen, Chelsea Pensioner

The Ceremony of the Christmas Cheeses (read about 2022's event)

This quirky ceremony is unique to the Royal Hospital and dates back over 300 years. In 1692, a local cheesemonger gave some of his wares to the ‘Red Breasts of Chelsea’ as a Christmas present. The tradition has continued ever since, with the cheeses being donated by Dairy UK since 1959. 

The popular event includes entertainment – surprise guests have included singers and ballroom dancers ­– speeches from the Governor and the Chairman of Dairy UK and a blessing from the Chaplain. The highlight is the cutting of one of the many British cheeses by a Chelsea Pensioner, using a ceremonial sword. Finally, Pensioners, guests and staff enjoy canapes and bubbly and raise their voices to sing The Quartermaster’s Stores – an entertaining old Army song that begins “There was cheese, cheese, wafting on the breeze”. 

“We look forward to the cheese ceremony every year. The way we maintain traditions here is brilliant.” - Michael, Chelsea Pensioner

The Ceremony of the Christmas Cake

This tradition stretches back to 1949 and celebrates the friendship between the UK and Australia. Each year, a cake is donated by a different Australian state and cut by a Chelsea Pensioner using a ceremonial sword. The Chaplain blesses the cake in rhyme, the Governor and the Australian state’s representative make speeches and everyone joins to sing the national anthem and Waltzing Matilda. Each year, Pensioners and guests look forward to seeing the unusual cake designs which have featured everything from a fortress and a map of Australia, to native marsupials! 

“I loved living in Australia, but this place really is great and I’ve settled in well. The cake decorations looked really good today - John, Chelsea Pensioner

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