Victoria Day is a federal Canadian public holiday celebrated on the last Monday preceding May 25, in honour of Queen Victoria’s birthday. As such, it is the Monday between the 18th to the 24th inclusive, and thus is always the penultimate Monday of May. The date is simultaneously that on which the current Canadian sovereign’s official birthday is recognized. It is sometimes informally considered the beginning of the summer season in Canada.
The holiday has been observed in Canada since at least 1845, originally falling on Victoria’s actual birthday (24 May 1819). It continues to be celebrated in various fashions across the country; the holiday has always been a distinctly Canadian observance. Victoria Day is a federal statutory holiday, as well as a holiday in six of Canada’s ten provinces and all three of its territories. In Quebec, before 2003, the Monday preceding 25 May of each year was unofficially the Fête de Dollard, a commemoration of Adam Dollard des Ormeaux initiated in the 1920s to coincide with Victoria Day. In 2003, provincial legislation officially created National Patriots’ Day on the same date.
Canada is the only country that commemorates Queen Victoria with an official holiday. Federal government protocol dictates that, on Victoria Day, the Royal Union Flag is to be flown from sunrise to sunset at all federal government buildings-including airports, military bases, and other Crown owned property across the country-where physical arrangements allow (i.e. where a second flag pole exists, as the Royal Union Flag can never displace the national flag).
Before they were abolished in 1968 by the Trudeau government, Royal salutes (21-gun salutes) used to be fired in Ottawa, the provincial capitals, and Montreal and Vancouver not only on the Queen’s Official Birthday, but also on the Queen’s Accession Day (February 6), the Queen’s actual birthday (April 21), the Queen’s Coronation Day (June 2), the Birthday of the Duke of Edinburgh (June 10), and (in those days) the Birthday of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (August 4).
Several cities hold a parade on the holiday, with the most prominent being that which has taken place since 1898 in the monarch’s namesake city of Victoria, British Columbia. In nearby New Westminster, the Victoria Day weekend is distinguished by the Hyack Anvil Battery Salute, a tradition created during colonial times as a surrogate for a 21-gun salute: Gunpowder is placed between two anvils, the top one upturned, and the charge is ignited, hurling the upper anvil into the air. Other celebrations include an evening fireworks show, such as that held at Ashbridge’s Bay Beach in the east end of Toronto, and at Ontario Place, in the same city.
Across the country, Victoria Day serves as the unofficial marker of the end of the winter social season, and thus the beginning of the summer social calendar. Banff, Alberta’s Sunshine Village ends its lengthy ski season on Victoria Day and, likewise, it is during this long weekend that many summer businesses-such as parks, outdoor restaurants, bicycle rentals, city tour operators, etc.-will open. Victoria Day is also a mark of the beginning of the cottage season, when cottage owners may reverse the winterization of their property. Gardeners in Canada will similarly regard Victoria Day as the beginning of spring, as it falls at a time when one can be fairly certain that frost will not return until the next autumn. There is also a change in fashion: lighter-coloured summer clothing was traditionally worn from Victoria Day through until Labour Day.
The holiday is colloquially known in parts of Canada as May Two-Four; a double entendre that refers both to the date around which the holiday falls (May 24) and the Canadian slang for a case of twenty-four beers (a “two-four”), a drink popular during the long weekend. The holiday weekend may also be known as May Long or May Run, and the term Firecracker Day was also employed in Ontario.
A traditional, short song about Victoria Day went as follows: “The twenty-fourth of May / Is the Queen’s birthday; / If they don’t give us a holiday / We’ll all run away!” The holiday is referenced in the song “Lakeside Park” by Canadian rock band Rush, from their 1975 album Caress of Steel. The song features the line, “everyone would gather on the 24th of May, sitting in the sand to watch the fireworks display”.
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