01/12/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
IT WAS, IN MANY WAYS, LIKE CHRISTMASES past. On Dec. 25, Prince William
and Prince Harry
, sticking to tradition, shook hands with well-wishers gathered for morning services outside the Church of St. Mary Magdalene on the Queen's Sandringham estate. As their father, Prince Charles, looked on, the boys accepted armloads of flowers and gift wrapped presents (including a box of Spice Girls brand chocolates). "They were smiling and seemed quite happy," says royal watcher Peter Archer of the British Press Association, "but it must have been difficult for them."
Indeed on the first Christmas since Diana's death on Aug. 31, William, 15, and Harry. 13. were reminded of their mother everywhere. At the morning ceremony Canon George Hall offered thanks "for those whom we love but see no more, Diana, Princess of Wales, and all loved ones who have departed this life." Later that day in her annual Christmas Day address, Queen Elizabeth acknowledged the nation's "shock and sorrow" over Diana's death, which she called "almost unbearably sad." (On Dec. 29 the Royal Mail, the British post office, released pictures of five official postage stamps that will feature the late princess.)
Still, the royals' holiday season was filled as much with revelry as remembrance. On Dec. 15—two days before the boys somberly chose a few of their mother's Kensington Palace belongings to take to their new home, St. James's Palace—they appeared ebullient as they chatted with friends at the London premiere of Spiceworld, the Spice Girls' new movie. Earlier on the 15th, the princes made a surprise appearance at a foxhunt in which Camilla Parker Bowles participated—possibly the first time they observed Charles's lover in person. On Christmas Eve, having bought gifts including a silver paperweight and cuff links at a London jewelry store a week before, the boys exchanged presents with the other Windsors by the tree at Sandringham. (Fergie, as usual, was not invited.)
As the year came to a close on Dec. 31, the young princes were scheduled to board a plane for Klosters, Switzerland, for a skiing vacation with their father—an event, many hoped, that would mark the beginning of a new year filled more with joy than sorrow.
SIMON PERRY and NINA BIDDLE in London