LONDON — It’s Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday, but she’s the one handing out the presents.
For the first time, Elizabeth’s birthday has coincided with Maundy Thursday, the day marking Jesus’ Last Supper, when the queen traditionally gives special coins to as many men and as many women as the years of her life.
So this year 85 men and 85 women received two coin purses during the ceremony at Westminster Abbey.
The red one contained a 5 pound ($8) coin commemorating the 90th birthday of her husband Prince Philip and a 50 pence coin marking the 2012 London Olympic Games. The white one held specially minted Maundy Money of one, two three and four pence pieces, adding up to a total of 85 pence.
The ceremony comes just over a week before the monarch’s grandson Prince William is due to wed Kate Middleton in a ceremony to be watched by hundreds of millions, and it served as a kind of dry run for the big event.
It gave musicians and choirs from the abbey and the monarch’s Chapel Royal to perform in public, while technicians had the chance to test cameras, lighting and other equipment.
“Maundy” comes from the word “mandatum,” the “new commandment” to love one another that Jesus made at the Last Supper, as recorded in the Bible’s John 13:34.
Royal Maundy ceremonies date to the 12th century, but a custom of the monarch washing the feet of others as Jesus did ended with the reign of James II in the 18th century.
“Like many people I was a little hazy about the details but it is an ancient ceremony that I am proud to be part of,” said one recipient, Henry Hely-Hutchinson, 85.
He recalled attending another royal occasion — the queen’s 18th birthday party at Windsor Castle. He was among four students at a local school invited, he says, “to make up the numbers.”
“It was a very glamorous occasion in the middle of wartime when there were not many celebrations going on,” he recalled.