There’s more to Victoria Day than beer and fireworks

Jordana Divon
Contributing Writer
Daily Brew

For many it signifies the kickoff to summer and a chance to crack open a cooler stocked by two-fours on a patio for three days straight.

But beyond its designation as one of the statutory holidays that features fireworks, Victoria Day remains a link to Canada's British ties and honours a sovereign that many remember for her strong moral values and for hanging on to the throne longer than any of her fellow monarchs (63 years and 216 days, to be exact).

Though the day may have diminished in historical importance for the average Canadian, our 19th century predecessors took Queen Victoria's birthday quite seriously.

In 1845, over two decades before she became the first "Queen of Canada," Canadian parliament passed the first legislation to declare May 24 a national holiday.

Historian William Kilbourn wrote that during the 1854 Victoria Day celebration, 5,000 residents of Canada West (modern day Ontario and Quebec) gathered in front of the Lieutenant Governor's residence to "give cheer to their queen."

But despite its popularity across the Atlantic, it wasn't until her death in 1901 that Queen Victoria's birthday went international, becoming Empire Day by imperial decree throughout all British-held lands.

Canadians, preferring to stick to the original, continued to call it Victoria Day, and have also continued to celebrate the holiday long after Empire Day petered out across the Commonwealth.

By 1952, the day was shuffled around to its current spot on the calendar, falling on each Monday before May 25.

While official protocol demands that federal government buildings wave a Union Jack flag from sunrise to sunset and that 21-gun salutes resound from each provincial capital (including Ottawa) at noon, the day's "unofficial" activity often involves heavy imbibing, rendering "May Two-Four" April 20's alcohol-steeped equivalent.

That changes depending on where you live. If you call Victoria, B.C. home, there's a good chance you've attended the annual parade in your city namesake's honour since the first procession marched in 1898.

This year, New Brunswick and Toronto residents can ring in the holiday with Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall.

Elsewhere in the country, the day is marked by a series of live music concerts, family and municipal activities marking our historical ties to the Crown.

Over in Banff, skiers mourn the date as the official end to ski season, while in Quebec, those who don't particularly enjoy the idea of celebrating a British monarch have decided to pack in a few extra honorees.

National Patriot's Day commemorates the patriots of the Lower Canada Rebellion, a shift from the previous holiday that honoured colonist and soldier Adam Dollard des Ormeaux.

But no matter how you choose to ring in the holiday, exercise good judgment. While there's unlikely to be another Victoria Day Disaster, a designated driver is always a good idea.