If we in Britain were Ancient Egyptian, we would be about to celebrate the Feast Of The Tail.
Or, more succinctly: Sed. The celebration of fifty years of a Pharaoh’s rule. And while we are celebrating sixty, the principle of marking the milestones is still there.
Every Pharaoh had special ceremonial robes. And these robes had a tail.
Ancient historians have speculated whether this indicates that originally the ruler would have worn animal skin, with tails outstretched behind.
The feast to celebrate a ruler’s continued reign replaced a much darker affair. For in the mists of time, they would ritually sacrifice a ruler after fifty years.
The very idea. Our English Kings wouldn’t stand for being bumped off after fifty years of service. Not after handling five decades of the disgruntled, acerbic inhabitants of this strange group of islands which fights so very much above its weight.
Henry III spent his 56 years of rule battling belligerent barons over the contents of the Magna Carta; he was just nine years old when he began his rule. 1266 was his jubilee year: 50 years of trouble and strife. I wonder if he felt like celebrating.
In 1277 Edward III crossed the fifty year milestone. The founder of the Order of the Garter was 14 when he became king, and celebrated his jubilee year by shuffling off this mortal coil.
It was George III who saw fit to celebrate the coming and going of the fifty year mark. He hated the stifling ceremonial of the London Court, and instead came to his beloved Windsor Castle to mark the passing of the decades, holding a quiet service at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, followed by a firework display at Frogmore House, and an ox roast on Bachelor’s Acre.
He almost made it to his sixtieth year of rule, dying just months short of his diamond jubilee.
But Victoria made it to her sixtieth year, indeed trotted past it. A strange business, the service outside St Paul’s Cathedral with the Queen sitting in a carriage: but it was gratifyingly public, for a queen who had disappeared from the public eye to such an extent. The country went jubilee bonkers, and the modern jubilee tradition of festooning buildings and taking over the streets for parties was born.
Our monarch is the fifth to reach fifty years. And it’s easy to underestimate her impact: a spine to the governments which arrive and depart, a familiar face even when there’s a new prime minister; the person you sit down to watch after roast dinner and christmas pudding on December 25th; the solemn figure in designer pastels who walks the streets to speak to crowds, who has begat a dynasty which captivated the world with its stories, both glorious and scurrilous.
We, here in Britain, have been very fortunate. Our Queen shares with Elizabeth I and Victoria a sense of duty rare even in women in this day and age: for a wife and grandmother she is still, like Oriana, wedded to her country.
I was a child for the celebrations of her 25th year, bedecked in blue flares with white t-shirt and a red jumper. My mind lives in the present and has trouble with my own memory: the seventies are a haze of muddy brown and dreary pop music. I believe everyone got a coin, and we all partied accordingly.
And now I am bringing our children to celebrations, thirty-five years on.
Felix and the Princesses dressed in clothes corresponding to the decades of Elizabeth’s reign. Felix bagged the seventies. Phil found a little shop in Pimlico which sold psychadelic Huggy-Bear-suits, and brought one home, and his son went proudly into the seventies, enjoying it much more than we ever enjoyed the real decade.
And Al? I pottered off with him to his jubilee celebrations yesterday. It was a games-only extravaganza, outside and inside, with a slap-up royal picnic and jubilee hats and mats and flags to wave enthusiastically. We played hard and Al sported the hat with something which looked like national pride, though it may have simply been that he could not see under the rim.
We are on the edge of our weekend to fete sixty years of one woman sticking with us through thick and thin, in times of press coverage favourable and unfavourable, of public perceptions sometimes respectful, sometimes critical.
We wait. And there is something jubilant in the air.