Questions over disgraced prince hang over queen as royals celebrate Christmas

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By Rachel Elbaum  with NBC News World News
Image: The queen's grandson, Prince William kisses his young son, Prince Lo
The queen's grandson, Prince William kisses his young son, Prince Louis, who is next to his siblings, Princess Charlotte and Prince George, in this photo taken by their mother, Kate, and released on Christmas morning.   -   Copyright  The Duchess of Cambridge

LONDON — At the end of a "bumpy" year, the queen celebrated Christmas on Wednesday together with her family at her country estate in the east of England.

She will be joined by her 98-year-old husband, Prince Philip, who returned a day earlier to Sandringham after a four-day stay at a London hospital.

In the morning, the queen was photographed by British media arriving at an early private church service. Prince Andrew, who stepped away from royal duties last month because of the controversy surrounding his past friendship with accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, was also seen walking to the church with his brother, Prince Charles.

Later, the queen is expected to go to a traditional Christmas service, where a crowd of well-wishers usually gather to catch a glimpse of the monarch and other members of the royal family. It is not known if Andrew will attend this very public outing.

One notable absence this year will be her 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, her son, Prince Charles, grandson Prince William and great-grandson Prince George — making a Christmas dessert together for charity. The palace posted a video of their cooking session in Buckingham Palace on Tuesday.

In an advance photo of the queen giving her annual Christmas speech, her three heirs along with the queen's father, King George VI, featured in the photographs on her desk. Each year, the monarch pre-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.

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William sent out his own Christmas greetings on Christmas morning, posting a new photo with his children to the Kensington Palace twitter feed. His wife, Kate, took the photo in Norfolk, and it features William in a flat cap kissing his youngest son Louis, with Princess Charlotte and Prince George looking into the camera.

After a year of division in politics, the queen will talk in her 68th Christmas speech about the need for the country to come together, according to a statement from the palace with excerpts of the speech that were released Monday.

"By being willing to put past differences behind us and move forward together, we honor the freedom and democracy once won for us at so great a cost," she will say, according to the statement.

"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."