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Victoria Day: Fireworks galore as Canada celebrates its two queens

Amid blooming trees and nesting birds, spring has sprung in Canada as it prepares to celebrate Victoria Day on Monday with much anticipation… image Anticipation? Why, it signals the unofficial return of summer, of course! Whether eagerly preparing to light up the barbecue, open up the cottage, or pull out the gardening tools, the long-awaited arrival of the ‘May Long Weekend’ brings about Canadians’s collective hope that they have seen the last of Ol’ Man Winter’s treacherous ‘altruism’.

All practical reasons aside, however, the contagious celebratory mood of the day is but a hint of the deep affection that Canadians hold for their British monarchs, as Canada is the only country to devote an actual holiday to Queen Victoria. In fact, Victoria Day celebrates the birth of not one, but both of its regent queens: Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II.

Young Victoria

Young Victoria

May 24th was officially recognised as young Victoria’s birthdate in 1845, by statute of a pre-Confederation parliament of the ‘province of Canada’, now known as Ontario.  In fact, admiration for their queen was so great that in 1854, on her 35th birthday, throngs of colonists numbering five thousand were recorded to have gathered before Government House in Toronto to cheer their appreciation.

By the mid-1860s, it was not unusual for picnics, parades, athletic events and processions by candlelight to be organised in her honour around the colony, and her birthday was officially named a holiday in the 1890s.

Sharing in this passionate sentiment was Clementina Trenholme, a fervent Canadian anglophile – who was one of the Niagara Women’s Auxiliary Leaflet‘s first editors and, by now, rector at St John’s Anglican Church in Ancaster Ontario. She had found a deeply spiritual and physical connection to the widowed queen, and even took up her role model’s black mourning dress to grieve the death of her own husband in 1896.

Clementina’s deep affection for Queen Victoria and the Monarchy so moved her that she wished to instil such an appreciation in the hearts of younger generations.  In 1898, she began instituting Empire Day in Canadian schools on the last Monday of school before May 24th, Queen Victoria’s birthday, to celebrate Canada’s close ties to the British Monarchy. The new tradition spread quickly throughout the new country, with a full day’s worth of activities, inspirational speeches and singing.

If the British Empire expanded much during her reign, Queen Victoria’s role in governing the United Kingdom decreased much after the passing of her beloved Albert, with The Queen withdrawing from public engagements, and the House of Commons taking on a more important role.

Her death in January 1901 plunged Canadians into deep sorrow, and the May 24th holiday celebrating her birthday became a memorial to the woman they proclaimed as the ‘Mother of Confederation’; the day was officially named ‘Victoria Day’. Depending on sources, there is some disagreement as to when, but the holiday was eventually moved to coincide with Empire Day, the Monday preceding May 25th.

In 1904, Reginald Brabazon, 12th Earl of Meath, distinguished Conservative member of the House of Lords and a fervent imperialist and philanthropist, introduced Clementina’s ‘Empire Day’ to the United Kingdom; soon, an imperial decree extended the day of festivities throughout the British Empire. There began the tradition of lighting backyard firecrackers, as well as spectacular fireworks displays and community bonfires to express the people’s pride in belonging to the British Empire.

If the new country had celebrated their first monarch’s birthday on May 24th, it had no clear pattern as to when to ‘officially’ celebrate later reigning sovereigns’s birthdays.  Oddly, Canada chose to officially celebrate King Edward VII’s birthday on May 24th, his mother’s birthday.  George V’s and Edward VIII’s birthdays were officially celebrated on their actual birthdays.

In a curious series of events, Edward VIII abdicated three days prior to his brother’s birthday, leaving the new king in a rather awkward position… Given the strange turn of events, King George VI found it inappropriate to publicly celebrate his birthday. William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s Prime Minister at the time, as well as the rest of Cabinet and Governor General the Lord Tweedsmuir disagreed, and reflected that the birthday presented the perfect opportunity to break from the morose sentiment, and begin the new reign on a brighter note.  From then on, George VI’s birthday would officially be celebrated on varying days between May 20th and June 14th, and new Queen Elizabeth II would be the last to see, what turned out to be her first, official birthday celebrated in June.

All the confusion surrounding Canada’s official celebration of reigning sovereigns’s birthdays ended in 1952, when it was decided to observe all three, Victoria Day, Empire Day and the official celebration of the monarch’s birthday on the same day, that is, on the Monday preceding May 25th. The following year, Empire Day was renamed ‘Commonwealth Day’ to reflect the new status of countries belonging to the former British Empire, and removed from the equation altogether by being moved to the second Monday in March.

Today, Canada’s two queens prevail on Victoria Day, with extravagant fireworks displays like those in Toronto and Ottawa, Ontario, and elaborate parades, the most prominent one taking place in Victoria, British Columbia.

According to federal government protocol, 21-gun salutes are to take place at noon in Ottawa – the federal capital – along with all provincial capitals, in honour of Her Majesty.  The Royal Union Flag is also to fly proudly alongside the national flag atop every federal building from dusk to dawn, provided that two flagpoles are available.

Across the country, Victoria Day also signals the opening of recreational facilities such as parks and swimming pools, and summer businesses such as bicycle and boat rentals, tour and cruise operators, restaurant terraces, and outdoor theatres. To children’s delight, ice-cream trucks make their seasonal re-appearance in full musical merriment.

As of Victoria Day, white shoes and ‘whites’ are no longer taboo until Labour Day, and lighter fare such as salads and ice tea replace the heartier winter fare that sustains Canadians through the harsh winter weather.

The statutory holiday is also colloquially known as ‘May Two-Four’ in reference to both, Queen Victoria’s birthday and the large consumption of beer sold in packs of 24 that marks the weekend’s celebrations.

Young Princess Elizabeth, two months before joining her parents on the May 1939 Canadian homecoming.

Young Princess Elizabeth, two months before joining her parents on the May 1939 Canadian homecoming.

Her Majesty celebrated her birthday on Canadian soil on two occasions.  The first was in 1939 as a young Princess Elizabeth accompanied George VI on his official coast-to-coast ‘homecoming’ through Canada in 1939, at which time her father’s birthday was celebrated on Parliament Hill with the official Trooping of the Colours ceremony. The second was celebrated with no greater fanfare than dictated by usual protocol in 2005, during her tour of Alberta and Saskatchewan to commemorate the provinces’s 100 years since entering into Confederation.

Prince Charles, accompanied by his wife Camilla, did celebrate his mother’s birthday in 2012, during special events on the New Brunswick and Ontario legs of his whirlwind, three-day Canadian tour, as The Queen’s special emissary, to mark Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee.  Prime Minister Stephen Harper made The Prince Of Wales Honourary Commissioner of the RCMP, an honour that deeply moved the future heir whose mother treasured a photo of him as a child dressed in the RCMP uniform, and whose two RCMP horses he enjoys riding for ceremonial functions.

“My wife and I appreciated our visit more than I can express, and we are infinitely grateful to the hundreds of Canadians that we met, and who welcomed us with so much warmth and generosity,” said The Prince.

This weekend, Prince Charles and The Duchess of Cornwall will once again celebrate Victoria Day among friends, as Canadians enthusiastically welcome their royal guests on their third Canadian homecoming as a couple. This will be a heavily-packed four-day whirlwind tour through Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba to commemorate Canada’s history and celebrate its vibrant future.

And so, as Canada prepares to break out the fireworks and fire up their barbecues, Royal Central would like to wish all Canadians a most delightful and safe Victoria Day…  God save The Queen!

photo credits: Dustan Sept via photopin cc, Tekniska museet via photopin cc, and BBC Radio 4 via photopin cc

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