Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family attended a Christmas church service Monday, with a special guest: Meghan Markle, Prince Harry's American fiancee.

Markle, 36, smiled and gave a brief wave in her first public appearance with the queen, and her first Christmas with the family. The American actress and Prince Harry plan to marry at Windsor Castle in May. She became the first royal fiancée to spend the holiday at Sandringham with the queen before marrying into the family. Even Kate Middleton spent her first Christmas as Prince William's fiancée, in December 2010, with her own family in England.

This break with the usual protocol can be interpreted in two ways: Either the custom was never as rigid as some assumed, or the royal family – acutely aware of the need to make adjustments with the times – is adapting to a new era, and a different kind of royal bride-to-be. (Markle, an actress born in Los Angeles, currently stars in Suits, a drama on the USA cable network, but is leaving the show after the upcoming seventh season.)

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

The royals stopped to talk with area residents, who waited in the cold for a chance to give them flowers. The crowd was larger than in past years, perhaps because of curiosity about Markle.

Elizabeth, 91, and Philip, 96, missed last year's church service because they were suffering from 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 gave a customary speech following lunch.

This break with the usual protocol can be interpreted in several ways: Either the protocol was never as rigid as assumed, or the royal family – acutely aware of the need to make adjustments with the times – is adapting to a new era and a different kind of royal bride-to-be.

Markle was wearing a Sentaler wide-collar camel coat, cinched at the waist and topped with a caramel brown round hat featuring a twisty details, plus matching gloves, suede boots and small round purse, according to blogs that track the royals' style.

Duchess Kate, who is pregnant with her third child due in April, was wearing a red-and-green Miu Miu velvet-trimmed double-breasted tartan peacoat over her growing baby bump.

The royal family spends Christmas at Sandringham, the queen's private sprawling estate in Norfolk, about 110 miles north of London. The family opens presents on Christmas Eve, a tradition handed down from its German roots. On Christmas, they troop down the path from Sandringham to St. Mary Magdalene Church, although the queen is driven.

Elizabeth planned to use her annual Christmas message to pay tribute to the way the cities of London and Manchester pulled together after extremist attacks earlier this year.

Remarks recorded by the monarch are televised 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.

"This Christmas, I think of London and Manchester, whose powerful identities shone through over the past 12 months in the face of appalling attacks," she says. 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."

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

Contributing: Associated Press