(1854 Celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday on the grounds of the second Government House of Upper Canada, Toronto. Source: Wikipedia.)
For Canadians, Victoria Day (or May 24 [pronounced “two-four”, also slang for a case of 24 beers]) is an important celebration which also generally marks the unofficial beginning of summer. Victoria Day occurs on the Monday before May 25th and forms the third day of a long weekend. So although we refer to it as May 24, Victoria Day can actually fall on any date between the 18th and 24th of May. This year we celebrate on the 19th.
However, as the name suggests, in the beginning Victoria Day wasn’t exactly meant to signify the beginning of summer. May 24, 1819 marked the birth of Queen Victoria. Celebrations of the Queen’s birthday had occurred in Canada since before it was actually a country. These celebrations were usually on the actual date of May 24th. In 1845 (22 years before Confederation) the parliament of the Province of Canada passed legislation which officially recognized the date of the Queen’s birthday as a holiday. By the 1890s Victoria Day had turned into quite the festive occasion, complete with ringing church bells, marching bands, parades, picnics, fireworks, gun salutes, athletic competitions, and bonfires.
Following Victoria’s death in 1901, her son Edward VII’s birthday was also celebrated on May 24th, despite the fact that he had been born in November. However, the next two monarchs, George V and Edward VIII, chose to officially celebrate their birthdays on their actual dates of birth. The next monarch, George VI, was born in December, but chose to continue Edward VIII’s tradition of celebrating in June. His daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, also continued officially celebrating her birthday in June, although she was born in April.
Meanwhile, Canadians had continued to celebrate Victoria Day in May. Canadians had maintained a fondness for the “Mother of Confederation,” who had overseen the rule of Canada as it came to maturity as its own nation. Although Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday is still celebrated in June in the United Kingdom, in 1957 Canada officially and permanently appointed Victoria Day as the monarch’s birthday in Canada as well.
Meanwhile, to make matters more confusing, in 1898, Empire Day was first celebrated in Canada on the school day before May 24th. It built upon the celebrations of Victoria Day to glorify Canada’s ties to the British Empire. In 1952, Empire Day was moved to the Monday before May 24th, and the year after, Victoria Day was moved to the same date, thus merging the two holidays. However, in 1958 Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day and in 1977 it was once again moved, this time to the second Monday in March. This left Victoria Day/the monarch’s birthday on the Monday before May 24th, as the statutory holiday we celebrate today.
Today Victoria Day contains many of the same activities as it had in the past – mainly picnics, parades, and fireworks – as well as some more modern additions. The long weekend is when Canadians can open up their dusty cottages after the winter, start gardening, go camping, boating, or maybe even risk a swim (though the water may yet be quite chilly). The beverage of choice is a two-four of ice cold beer as the barbecues are fired up once again. Many people take advantage of the time off to party. Some people may even still recite the old rhyme, “The Twenty-Fourth of May is the Queen’s Birthday. If we don’t get a holiday, we’ll all run away!”
So what, then, do Canadians eat on Victoria Day? I tried to answer this question, and here’s what I found from newspaper advertisements (mostly from grocers advertising foods for the holiday) and a few cookbooks:
- Potted meats, potted fish, potted game, lunch tongue, boneless chicken, boneless turkey, chipped beef, pate de fois, truffled birds, cottage loaf, ham loaf, beef loaf, fruit wines and ciders, fruit syrups, lime juice. Ottawa Citizen – May 22, 1901
- Oranges, olives, dates, prunes, butter scotch, Welch’s grape juice. The Montreal Gazette – May 21, 1912
- Roast ham, boiled ham, corned beef, pressed ham, jellied tongue, jellied veal, jellied hock, english brawn, pickles. Ottawa Citizen – May 22, 1913
- Sandwiches, salads. The Montreal Gazette – May 23, 1941
- Domestic ducks, roasting chickens, squabs, broilers, brome lake ducklings. The Montreal Gazette – May 23, 1941
- Creole Wieners and Oriental Spice Cake with Mocha Icing. Ottawa Citizen – May 17, 1956
Sliced cold turkey. Ottawa Citizen – May 18, 1967
- Asparagus soup, roast lamb, minted peas and carrots, rissole potatoes, relish tray, chutney, rhubarb custard pie. Chatelaine’s Adventures in Cooking, 1969
- Devilled eggs, pan-fried minted brook trout, cheese herb bread with sweet butter, spring salad, Fullarton May cakes with fudge icing, classic butter tarts, chilled dry white wine, cold lager beer. Classic Canadian Cooking, 1974
- “families would char hotdogs or burn hamburgers over an open fire. It was fishing time, too, with sleek pickerel…smelt…and suckers…” Gadsden Times – May 13, 1975
“Commonwealth Day.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 05 Nov. 2014. Web. 14 May 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commonwealth_Day>.
Toffoli, Garry. “The Queen’s Birthday in Canada.” Canadian Royal Heritage Trust. N.p., 2013. Web. 14 May 2014. <http://crht.ca/the-queens-birthday-in-canada/>.
“Victoria Day.” Canadian Heritage. Government of Canada, 2013. Web. 14 May 2014. <http://www.pch.gc.ca/eng/1359139714709/1359139936142>.
“Victoria Day.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 05 Nov. 2014. Web. 14 May 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_Day>.
“Victoria Day in Canada.” Time and Date. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2014. <http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/canada/victoria-day>.
“Victoria Day: Responsible Rule and Firecrackers.” The Globe and Mail. N.p., 18 June 2012. Web. 14 May 2014. <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/editorials/victoria-day-responsible-rule-and-firecrackers/article4197794/>.