LONDON — Queen Elizabeth II’s great-grandchildren, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, were front and center on Christmas morning as Prince Andrew, the monarch’s disgraced son, was notably absent from the public events although he did attend an earlier private service.
Holding hands with their parents, Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, 6-year-old George — who is third in line to the throne — and Charlotte, 4, walked through the sunshine into church along with their grandfather, Prince Charles. Younger brother Prince Louis, 1, did not attend the hourlong service.
In what appeared to be a first, George and Charlotte walked over to waiting crowds to say hello after the noon (7 a.m. ET) service at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham, in the east of England. While in the public eye since birth, the royal children have until now had little direct contact with the public.
The queen, wearing a bright red hat and coat, had arrived together with Charles’ wife. In her role as monarch, the queen holds the title of Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
Andrew, whose title is the Duke of York, didn’t appear to attend the 11 a.m. (6 a.m. ET) church service. Earlier he was photographed by British media walking together with Charles to a private church service that the queen also appeared to attend.
Andrew stepped away from royal duties last month because of the controversy surrounding his past friendship with accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
Also absent Christmas morning was the queen's 98-year-old husband, Prince Philip, who returned to Sandringham on Tuesday after a four-day stay at a London hospital.
NBC royal contributor Camilla Tominey said it would make sense to make the younger royals a focus during this period.
“I think they're responding to this great public appetite to see more of the children. And that's a good thing," she said. "The other convenient thing from a PR perspective is it creates a distraction from what would have been the story of Christmas: the attendance or otherwise of the Duke of York and Prince Philip.”
Other notable absences were the queen's grandson, Prince Harry, and his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex. The couple are spending the holiday with their baby son, Archie, in Canada this year.
In the run-up to Christmas, the palace has focused heavily on publicizing the monarch with her three direct heirs.
Last week, the palace released a photo of four generations of royalty — the queen, Charles, William and George — making a Christmas dessert together for charity. The palace posted a video of their cooking session in Buckingham Palace on Tuesday.
An advance photo of the queen giving her annual Christmas speech featured picture frames on her desk with photos of her three heirs along with the queen’s father, King George VI. Each year, the monarch records a Christmas message that is broadcast on the afternoon of Dec. 25. The photos that she has around her are always studied carefully by the British media.
Andrew stepped back from public royal duties "for the foreseeable future" just days after he discussed his relationship with Epstein in a BBC Newsnight interview that ended up only heightening public attention to the matter.
American Virginia Roberts Giuffre has said that she was 17 when she was trafficked by Epstein, and has alleged that she met with Andrew on three separate occasions. Andrew has repeatedly denied the allegations and said he didn't recall meeting her.
After a year of division in politics, the queen talked in her 68th Christmas speech about the need to take small steps to heal the nation's divisions and come together, and she singled out environmental activists for approbation.
"The challenges many people face today may be different to those once faced by my generation, but I have been struck by how new generations have brought a similar sense of purpose to issues such as protecting our environment and our climate," she said, as she also recalled the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
She also mentioned the birth of Archie, her eighth great-grandchild, in the annual message.
William and his wife sent out Christmas greetings early Wednesday, posting a new photo of the family on the Kensington Palace twitter feed. Kate took the photo in Norfolk, and it features William in a flat cap kissing Louis, with Charlotte and George looking into the camera.