Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, died in 1901 – but Canadians still celebrate her birthday every year.
Actually, we celebrate two birthdays this weekend: Victoria’s, and Queen Elizabeth II’s. Victoria was actually born on May 24, and since 1953, the official celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s birthday in Canada has fallen on the same day – even though her real birthday is in April.
Celebrating the monarch’s birthday is a long tradition in Canada, according to Garry Toffoli, vice-chairman and executive director of the Canadian Royal Heritage Trust, going back to George III’s reign in the 18th and 19th century.
In Canada, as in England, the day was associated with the military – although England’s “Trooping the Colour” military parade was more impressive than Canada’s annual militia muster, said Toffoli.
“One day a year, they would come from their farms with their pitchforks and their muskets and whatever they have and march around for a little bit, and then they’d go to the local tavern and have a beer,” – an early association of May 24 with beer.
The monarch’s birthday became more of a civilian holiday, with picnics and horse races, in the 1840s, he said.
There was a political motivation behind the celebration as well. Following a group of Anglo-Montrealers’ public declaration that they wanted Canada to join the United States (the Annexation Manifesto), people in Toronto protested by turning the Queen’s birthday into a grand patriotic holiday, said Toffoli. The party just spread from there.
Victoria’s birthday was made an official holiday in 1901, after her death. Parliament wanted to recognize her contributions to the country over her nearly 64-year reign, he said.
“Victoria, British Columbia is named after her. She named British Columbia. Regina in Saskatchewan is named after her. Alberta is named after her daughter, Princess Louise Alberta, who is named after her husband Prince Albert. In Ontario, we have Ottawa, which was named by Queen Victoria. Prince Edward Island is named after her father, Prince Edward, the one who lived in Canada for a decade.”
And although her birthday was set as a holiday from then on (unless May 24 was a Sunday, in which case it would be celebrated on the 25), other monarchs’ birthday celebrations moved around a bit, at least partly to ensure they happened during patio-friendly weather.
Victoria’s successor, King Edward VII, was born in November – a terrible time for a long weekend – so his birthday was also officially celebrated on May 24.
Subsequent monarchs’ birthdays were celebrated in June, whether or not they were actually born in June.
The two holidays were stuck together in 1953, and have since been celebrated on the Monday preceding May 25 every year.
Victoria Day is a recognition of her contributions to Canada, and also Queen Elizabeth II’s, said Toffoli. But it’s about more than that, he thinks. “It’s a recognition of who we are as a people.”
“If it weren’t for the Crown, there wouldn’t be a Canada. We’d be part of the United States.”
Robert Finch, dominion chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada, agrees. “It’s about celebrating the institution of the Crown from both a historical and contemporary perspective. It’s the one day of the year when Canadians are reminded that they live in a constitutional monarchy and that they have a Queen as their head of state,” he said.
“This is the day to celebrate our democracy, our Parliamentary traditions, our Westminster system of government, the rule of law, – all of those core features of Canada we cherish and have thanks largely to the Crown.”
But you should also just have some fun, said Toffoli. “It’s a day to have a party.”