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Queen Elizabeth II, Markle, royals attend Christmas service

Prince Harry and his fiancee Meghan Markle arrive to attend the traditional Christmas Day service, at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham, England, Monday, Dec. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

SANDRINGHAM, England (AP) — Queen Elizabeth II and senior members of the royal family — along with newcomer Meghan Markle, Prince Harry's American fiancee — attended a Christmas church service on Monday as a crowd of local residents gathered.

Markle smiled and gave a brief wave in her first public appearance with the queen. She and Harry stopped to talk with several locals on their way back to the queen's residence.

"She was very, very lovely," said Judith Wallis, a woman who chatted briefly with the couple. The crowd was larger than in previous years, perhaps because of curiosity about Markle.

The queen was joined by her husband, Prince Philip, and close family members including grandson Prince William and his wife, Kate, who is expected to give birth to the couple's third child in the spring.

Elizabeth, 91, and Philip, 96, missed last year's church service because they had the flu, but they seemed in good health during Monday's brief appearance. Philip walked back to the queen's house with other royals, but Elizabeth opted to be driven.

She and Prince Charles' wife, Camilla, rode to and from the service in a chauffeured Bentley with a horse-themed hood ornament, perhaps chosen by the queen, who loves horses and horse racing.

Elizabeth planned to use her annual Christmas message to pay tribute to the way London and Manchester pulled together after extremist attacks earlier this year. Remarks pre-recorded by the monarch will be televised later on Christmas Day in the United Kingdom and the 51 other Commonwealth countries.

Excerpts released by Buckingham Palace indicate Elizabeth praises Manchester, hit by a suicide bomber in May, and London, which endured attacks on Parliament, London Bridge and other landmarks.

She says the cities' "powerful identities shone through over the past 12 months in the face of appalling attacks."

The queen says it was her privilege to visit young survivors of the attack on a Manchester concert hall as they were recovering from the blast which claimed 22 lives.

"I describe that hospital visit as a 'privilege' because the patients I met were an example to us all, showing extraordinary bravery and resilience," she says.

Elizabeth also pays tribute to her husband, who this year stepped down from most public duties because of his advancing years. She praises him for his "support and unique sense of humor."

The queen and Philip are spending the holidays at Elizabeth's country estate in Sandringham, 110 miles (175 kilometers) north of London.

The royal family had a private lunch scheduled after the church service, with turkey reared on the estate featured on the menu. Gifts are traditionally exchanged on Christmas Eve.

This is the first Christmas the family is joined by Markle. The actress and Prince Harry plan to marry at Windsor Castle in May.

Elizabeth says in her brief broadcast that the royal family looks forward "to welcoming new members into it next year."

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Grant reported from Sandringham.

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