Street parties festooned with bunting were straining to start all over the country. But yesterday it was left to the Queen to open the 50th anniversary of VE Day in sombre mood and with solemn ceremony.
In the Great Hall at the Palace of Westminster, which was bombed during the war and where Winston Churchill once lay in state, she joined politicans for a special joint session of the Commons and the Lords. As brilliant sunshine streamed though the stained-glass south window, the sober opening to celebrations that mark the end of a bloody and brutal conflict seemed a million miles from the three-day jamboree poised to begin at nearby Hyde Park.
Billed as the largest national celebration since the Festival of Britain in 1951, the extravaganza - featuring Vera Lynn, the Who and Lulu among 20,000 entertainers - is expected to attract a million people. Its staging has demanded three and half miles of temporary roadway and enough on-site generated electricity to run a small town. Those who could not make the big one have erected marquees on village greens. Old service uniforms have been dusted down and medals polished; Forties fashions are being resurrected for tea dances and the singalongs to follow.
Singing through the war with Max Bygraves at Weymouth Pavilion seemed poor recompense for seeing off Hitler, but the Forties dance with fish and chip supper at Botley, Hampshire, sounded promising.
For old soldiers it is a bitter sweet occasion; a chance to meet up, to remember and give thanks to comrades who gave their lives for subsequent generations. But among the young indifference seemed widespread. "I don't see what it's got to do with me, do you?" asked Iain Begg, 20, from Edinburgh.
The Queen would have been appalled. The war, she said, had formed her youth and memories of the courage of the British people will remain with her forever. In the Great Hall, which narrowly escaped destruction in the Blitz, she asked for prayers for those who did not return from battle, for the victims of the Nazis and for those "whose vigils ended in heartbreaking loss and loneliness".
Yesterday's joint session was the start of international as well as national celebrations. This weekend the Queen is entertaining 58 heads of state - Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, and President Mitterrand of France. On Monday the VE Day road show moves to France when John Major attends a ceremony in Paris. On Tuesday Mr Major and President Bill Clinton will be in Moscow.
Celebration or commemoration - the tone was always going to be a problem. For many the partying will jar. Tears may be shed and years may melt away when the Queen Mother appears with the Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace just as they did the day peace was declared. But for those who fought and those who lost loved ones the only moment that matters may come at 8.38pm on Monday when British Airways stops its aircraft, TV stations break scheduled programmes and even McDonald's stops serving burgers for a two-minute silence. Over the years the ritual has become eroded; old soldiers hope its meaning and its practice may be restored.Reuse content