Sunday, January 2, 2011

Princess Lilian's Christmas Gifts

I wish this photograph were in color. Nonetheless, it vividly conveys Lilian's charm and cordiality. Despite her reputation as a stubborn, selfish and difficult woman, the Princesse de Réthy was known in her intimate circle as a generous benefactress and a gracious hostess. Every year, during the Christmas festivities, she lavished delicate attentions on her entourage, sensu lato, with her characteristic refinement, elegance and perfectionism. In Le mythe d'Argenteuil, Michel Verwilghen, himself a frequent guest at the royal estate in its heyday, shares a few charming details of these busy winter days. By the end of November, Lilian's household was astir with preparations for the Christmas celebrations. Aided by her secretary and her faithful housekeeper, Madame Jeannine, the princess prepared over a hundred presents, all substantial and personalized, for her close associates. Anxious to please everyone individually, she even initiated, at times, discreet, indirect inquiries into their desires. On December 25 came the ritual of the gift-giving itself; in the tradition of the Belgian royal family, Lilian personally distributed the presents, accompanied with kind words, to her intimates. For her most elite guests, distinguished soldiers and statesmen, she reserved some special treasures: the pocket watches, commemorating the Battle of the Yser (1914-1918), which her late father-in-law, the beloved Albert I, had ordered at the Maison Doucet in Paris. The cases bore the monograms of the Roi Chevalier and his consort, A and E, interlaced and surmounted with a crown, in gilded metal. The metal came from the fragments of exploded shells from the trenches of the Yser. Among the favored few who received one of these tragic but glorious mementos was Charles de Gaulle.

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