Christmas celebrations could be somewhat muted for the royal family, with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry absent from the traditional Sandringham festivities and the Queen recovering from a cold.

Prince William and his pregnant wife are instead spending the day with the Middletons, while Harry is serving as an Apache pilot in Afghanistan.

Traditionally the whole family would gather at the Queen's estate home over the festive period. Each year crowds of well-wishers turn out to greet the royals as they attend an annual Christmas Day church service.

But this year's appearance could be more low-key without William and Kate who will spend the day privately in Bucklebury, Berkshire.

The Duchess's return to the bosom of her family comes after a testing few weeks for Kate who was forced to announce her pregnancy earlier than planned when she was admitted to King Edward VII's Hospital in London following a bout of severe morning sickness. The condition, known as hyperemesis gravidarum, leaves expectant mothers so ill they cannot keep food or liquids down.

Days later, she and Prince William found themselves offering their condolences to the family of nurse Jacintha Saldanha, 46, who was found hanged in her nurses' quarters after answering a prank call made to the hospital by two Australian DJs impersonating the Queen and Prince of Wales.

According to Kate's sister Pippa, Christmas at the Middleton family home will be "blissfully calm". But it is likely to include some high jinks, she revealed, instigated by their father Michael. Writing in the latest edition of The Spectator magazine, Miss Middleton said: "He buys a new costume each year and typically gets a bit carried away - a couple of Christmases ago he appeared in an inflatable sumo outfit."

The Duke and Duchess are expected to follow their stay in Bucklebury with a visit to Sandringham at some point over the festive period. In Afghanistan Prince Harry, like thousands of other servicemen, will celebrate Christmas with troops.

This typically involves roast turkey with all the trimmings, thousands of mince pies and a smattering of fancy dress. It will be a far cry from the formalities at Sandringham where the Queen - who came down with a cold last week which meant she was forced to miss a church service on Sunday - is expected to be joined by the Duke of Edinburgh for a service at St Mary Magdalene Church.

Prince Philip was forced to miss the occasion last year after he was hospitalised over a blocked coronary artery. Instead, he spent four days at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire, where he was visited by William and Harry following their Christmas lunch.