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Long to reign over us: the language of anniversaries

On 6 February 1952, Queen Elizabeth II began her reign as monarch of the United Kingdom. Although she would not be ceremonially crowned until 2 June 1953 (the same day that news reached London of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful ascent of Mount Everest), she was proclaimed queen of the Commonwealth upon the death of her father, George VI. Therefore 6 February is the diamond jubilee, at least in terms of her accession. Interestingly, a diamond jubilee can mean a celebration of a 60th anniversary in terms of a person, or it can be the 75th anniversary of a particular event. In the UK, the only previous diamond jubilee to celebrate the reign of a monarch was for Queen Victoria, although there have been a few in other parts of the world.

Trumpet blasts

The earliest meaning of jubilee, as recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘a year of emancipation and restoration’, and it has a first date of 1382. This meaning comes from Jewish History, and refers to a chapter in the book of Leviticus where it is decreed that such years should take place every 50 years, and they should be announced throughout the land by the blast of trumpet. Etymologically speaking, the word jubilee comes ultimately from the Latin jubilaeus, after the Hebrew yōḇēl, originally a ram’s horn trumpet, the instrument of proclamation.

A gift for every occasion

With anniversaries of marriages, many have become associated with a particular item which can then be given as a gift. Traditionally, this was the case with the 1st, 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th, 50th, and 75th, but in the first part of the 20th century, this was widened out with the gaps filled for all of the years up until the 15th, and all of the five-year anniversaries after that (save the ones which were already well-established). They do vary from country to country though – for example, in the UK, it is customary to give a cotton gift for a 1st anniversary and a paper one for the 2nd, whereas in the USA, it is the other way round. Yet both have leather for the 3rd. Some of the items for the first 10 years are much more down to earth than the gemstones and precious metals which appear in the higher numbers – wood, fruit and flowers, and wool all make appearances, although it is balanced up a little by the inclusion of silk. It is perhaps debatable whether you should expect gifts from others or whether it is kept just between the two people who are married. As the years go by, this could be a blessing. Rubies tend to be more expensive than fruit and flowers.

The times they are a-changin’

Clearly though, some of these gifts were considered too traditional and a modern list was introduced in the USA. Instead of receiving something woollen on your 7th wedding anniversary, you can now have the option of being given a desk set; if you aren’t too keen on receiving something steel for your 11th, how about some fashion jewellery? And if you make it all the way to your 42nd, some improved real estate could be yours. Now there’s an incentive to work hard at marriage, if ever there was one.

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