EVERY FAMILY HAS A DANCE OF DUTY TO do at holiday time, and the British royals are no exception. The annual "family festival," as the Queen put it in her Christmas message to her nation, provides a "continuity [which] is a great source of comfort."

This year's gathering at their Sandringham estate, however, was about as comforting as an IRS audit. The careful choreography between ex-spouses, edgy in-laws and battle-scarred children would have put Balanchine to shame. Except that the prima ballerina was missing.

Two weeks after her separation from Charles, and three days before Christmas, Princess Diana decided to skip the whole royal show, choosing to holiday without her children but with her brother, sisters and their families at the Althorp family seat 75 miles away. It was an act, said a palace insider, of "childish spite."

Diana's decision came against the backdrop of arrangements worthy of a military planner. In October, Diana had apparently accepted an invitation to bunk at Wood Farm on the 20,500-acre Sandringham estate together with her sons, with the separated Fergie, her two daughters, Bea, 4, and Eugenie, 2, Fergie's mother, Susan Barrantes, and her sister, Jane Makim. Charles would stay in the main house with the other more loyal royals, 15 of them in all.

The Princess backed out when the Queen suddenly reassigned Diana to a suite at the 274-room main house, although she would still have been far distant from Charles. Apparently, says professional royal watcher and author Brian Hoey, "she simply can't stand the sham of being stuck in the same house with him."

Instead, Diana made the painful decision to spend her first Christmas without the kids. "She was sad and miserable about being apart from Wills and Harry," a friend told the Sunday Mirror in what seemed like one more deliberate leak. "She went to bed early, glum and in tears." But the sympathy ploy didn't work. She was still criticized for abandoning the little princes on the big day. Diana did not leave the Althorp estate for church on Christmas Day, fearing, said a family staffer, that being photographed "as the woman alone would cause pain and anguish to William and Harry." The next day she headed to London, where she was to be reunited with the boys on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, back at Sandringham, a gift-laden Prince Andrew visited his estranged wife and his daughters at Wood Farm after church on Christmas Day, hotfooting it back to his mum for the Christmas lunch—to which Fergie was not invited. The next day, playing gracious hostess, Fergie received Andrew, Charles, Wills and Harry for a morning visit. Then she and her mother, children, and sister were guests of the Queen at a rustic picnic along with Philip, Charles, Andrew, William, Harry and Princess Margaret.

The Fergie-tolerant behavior, one of her friends told the press, was "to reward her for being a good girl and taking her punishment—unlike Diana." The Princess of Wales's absence was seen by some as a tactical error. For the first time she has put her own interests before the needs of her children, which may gradually erode her popularity. "She made a mistake," says Hoey. "Others have tried to take on the royal family, and no one has ever won."

Diana should have taken a clue from her own 1992 Christmas card, which for the first time did not feature the whole family. Instead, the image was a somber Snowdon portrait of Wills on a huge throne-like chair, with Harry loyally alongside. Clearly, some Windsors have a guaranteed royal future. If Diana wants one as well, she'll have to stand by her children.

LOUISE LAGUE
TERRY SMITH in London

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Smith.