When Belgium's Crown Prince Philippe, the Duke of Brabant, proposed to Countess Mathilde d'Udekem d'Acoz in the fall of 1999, he changed the course of his nation's royal marriage history.
By making a crown princess of d'Acoz, an aristocratic former children's speech therapist, he positioned the stunning 26-year-old to become the first Belgian-born royal consort in its monarchy's history.
The engagement was celebrated by a Belgian populace often divided by linguistic and cultural differences, who were captivated by the surprise love match of the shy, studious 39-year-old prince, oldest son of reigning King Albert II and Italian-born Queen Paola.
The couple met playing tennis and dated for three years, but had been so low-key about their romance that Prince Philippe had to assure his nation's people and a skeptical press that theirs was not an arranged union.
Soon enough, the princess-to-be charmed Belgians with something even more beguiling than her striking good looks: her Belgian birthplace. Being a native gave multilingual d'Acoz a unique place in a monarchy that had produced its queens by marriages to foreigners with royal ties for centuries.
"The whole of Belgium fell for your charms," Brussels mayor, Francois Xavier de Donnea declared to Princess Mathilde on her wedding day.
Despite the chill, two ceremonies, one a civil service at city hall, one Roman Catholic at the St. Michiel and St. Goedele Cathedral, incorporated the spirit of the approaching holidays. The bride and groom were accompanied by a contingent of little girl bridesmaids decked out in red velvet dresses during the nuptials.
After their civil service, where their vows were broadcast by loudspeaker so well-wishers could listen in the streets, the couple traveled separately (with the princess bride in a gleaming Rolls-Royce) to the cathedral for the religious service before 1,200 invited guests. Great Britain's Prince Charles and Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako were among the high-profile royal witnesses.
Princess Mathilde's wedding gown, designed by Edouard Vermeulen of the fashion house of Natan, has been cited by some critics as one of the more stylish royal wedding dresses of the last century. The tailored coat-style dress, with a dramatic high and open collar, was accessorized with a vintage Art Deco diamond tiara loaned to the bride her by her mother-in-law, Queen Paola. Her veil was also an heirloom from her mother-in-law, who wore it at her own wedding, and was created in 1877 for the ancient Italian royal house of Ruffio di Calabrias.
The bride carried a cascading bouquet of white flowers with heavy greenery. The interior of the cathedral was appointed in an estimated $250,000 worth of coordinating arrangements.
During the religious ceremony, the couple pledged their vows in French and Dutch. They added German when they recited their civil vows, a nod to Belgium's diverse inhabitants.
After the ceremony, the couple was feted at a breakfast reception, followed that evening by a party hosted by King Albert II and Queen Paola at a royal palace.
The couple have since become the parents of four children, including the nation's first future female sovereign, 9-year-old Princess Elisabeth, who is her generation's heir-to-the-throne based on a change in royal succession laws Belgium enacted in 1991.