Christmas winds up a 'bumpy' year for the British royal family

From an alleged rift between Princes William and Harry to a scandal around Prince Andrew, negative headlines have become the norm for the queen's family.

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By Rachel Elbaum

LONDON — When Queen Elizabeth II's annual Christmas speech is officially released, she will have plenty to reflect on.

For the royals, despite the numerous international tours, meetings with world leaders and the birth of a son to Prince Harry, 2019 was marked by family drama, scandal and constitutional confusion.

While the country convulsed over Brexit, its royal family had its own share of difficulty and discord.

According to excerpts released late Monday, the queen will reflect in her Christmas message on the need for reconciliation and bridging division.

"The path, of course, is not always smooth, and may at times this year have felt quite bumpy, but small steps can make a world of difference," she will say in the speech according to a statement released by Buckingham Palace.

The pre-recorded message was filmed this year in Windsor Castle, and the queen was surrounded by photos of her direct heirs and predecessor, including her father in 1944, her son, Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, and Prince William and his family. One notable absence: Prince Harry, his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex and their baby son, Archie.

Queen Elizabeth II poses after recording her annual Christmas Day message in Windsor Castle.POOL New / Reuters

The negative headlines and happenings this year were a sharp departure from the usual news of royal marriages, births and fashion that have become standard over the past decade or so.

“She's 93 years old, her husband's 98, and this probably wasn't what was planned 12 months ago. She'll be looking forward to a much more positive 2020,” NBC News royal contributor Camilla Tominey said, referring to the queen and Prince Philip.

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Philip got the year off to a rocky start when he was involved in a car crash in a rural area of eastern England in January. The following month, after being photographed driving without a seat belt on, Buckingham Palace announced that he had voluntarily surrendered his driver's licence.

His year ended with a four-day hospital stay that the palace called “a precautionary measure.” He was released on Tuesday morning.

The queen, meanwhile, didn’t let her husband's medical treatment stop her from getting on with her Christmas plans. On Friday, she made her way up to her country house in Sandringham, where she spends the holidays with her family each year.

In an early nod to Christmas, the palace on Saturday released a photo of the queen smiling with her three heirs as they prepared special Christmas desserts for charity.

It’s still a question if Prince Andrew will be there or be seen with the rest of his family on their annual Christmas walk to church. Last month, he announced that he would be stepping away from royal duties because of the controversy surrounding his past friendship with accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

The announcement, believed by royal watchers to have come at the urging of Prince Charles and the queen, came days after a widely criticized interview in which Andrew appeared to defend his friendship with Epstein, who died by suicide Aug. 10, and what was seen by some as a failure to show any sympathy for the victims.

“Andrew can't even begin to rebuild his image until the case, the allegations against him by Epstein's alleged victims, have been cleared, if they can be cleared,” commentator Daisy McAndrew said.

“At the moment, there is a very dark cloud hanging over Prince Andrew and there is no sign that it is going to be swept away anytime soon,” she added.

One definite absence this year at Sandringham will be Harry and Meghan, who will be spending Christmas in Canada. The Queen's Commonwealth Trust shared their Christmas card on Twitter, which featured a close-up of their baby son, Archie.

The two are on an extended break from their royal duties, which this year included a tour of Africa and a stint for Meghan as the guest editor of Vogue magazine, as well as the birth of Archie.

Those highs were overshadowed by the bombshell lawsuit that Meghan filed against the parent company of a British tabloid for its publication of a letter she wrote to her father. The news of the lawsuit was accompanied by a scathing statement by Harry accusing the tabloid press of a "ruthless campaign" against his wife.

In the documentary "Harry and Meghan: An African Journey," which followed the couple on their tour of Africa, Meghan said that the media attention had been “challenging.”

"I never thought this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair," she added in the interview filmed at the tail end of their Africa trip, where they met with former Archbishop Desmond Tutu and were greeted by cheering crowds on their visits to charities.

Earlier in the year, the couple separated their household from that of Harry's brother, Prince William, and his wife, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. The brothers' changing relationship was signaled later when Harry alluded in the documentary to the two brothers being on “different paths.”

Britain's Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, are joined by her mother, Doria Ragland, as they show their new son, born in May.Chris Allerton / Reuters file

The queen meanwhile, faced her own constitutional challenges thanks to Brexit. Her suspension of Parliament in September, at the behest of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was ruled unlawful by Britain's Supreme Court, putting her in the middle of a political and constitutional crisis.

She had no choice but to do what the prime minister asked, but critics said it made the monarchy look weak.

Her Christmas speech is usually when she reflects on the events of the past year, though her language is often coded and careful. The speech is a highlight of Christmas Day for many British families, who gather around the television at 3 p.m. (10 a.m. ET) to watch.

Alanna Satur and Tony Brown contributed.