Victoria Day – it sounds like a pretty straightforward holiday. And you’d think that it would have a relatively straightforward history. At least that what I thought when I decided to write a blog post about Victoria Day. And boy, was I wrong. This entire week has been an exercise in frustration. But that’s actually normal. A good historian can never assume that a particular subject is going to be a no-brainer, since sometimes the simplest questions have the most complex answers. And sometimes, when you’re a historian, even if you ask all the right questions, all you get is a week of abject chaos. Because that’s how history works – its messy, complicated, and sometimes, the answers just aren’t there. So in today’s blog post, while I will talk about the history of Victoria Day, I’m also going to talk about realities of doing history.
A Problem of Sources
The biggest problem that I’ve encountered this week is that there just isn’t very much research on the subject of Victoria Day. I know that sounds crazy, but trust me on this. I know there is an article coming out in Raymond Blake and Matthew Hayday’s new collection on Celebrating Canada, but since that’s only being published in December, I was s@#% out of luck. There are two brief mentions of Victoria Day, that I’ll refer to below, but for the most part, the only sources I could find were websites like the Canadian Encyclopaedia, the Ministry of Heritage, and the Canadian Royal Heritage Trust, and they all cite each other. To make things worse, these websites all contradict each other on a number of important details. I’ve tried to check the primary sources for this information, but since I’m limited largely to what’s available online, I haven’t found much either.
What’s So Complicated?
The big problem: There is no set definition of Victoria Day. Yes, it’s about Queen Victoria. But it’s also about military parades, drinking, picnicking, spring, and the British Empire. Ask three different people what the point of Victoria Day is, and you’ll get four different answers. In Montreal, where I grew up, it meant the official start of spring, and that you could finally plant flowers in your garden without having to worry about them dying of frost. Everyone in my neighbourhood spent May 24th at the local plant nursery. But in Ontario, many people call the holiday “May 2-4,” and spend the weekend going camping with friends, opening up the cottage, and drinking beer (i.e. a “two-four”) around the campfire. In Victoria, where it’s called Victoria Day, there is a massive parade through the downtown core with marching bands, floats, and military marches. And here in Richmond, the holiday is called May Long Weekend, and it’s a nice perk that many people use to spend time with family.
Well, You Have to Start Somewhere
The origins of Victoria Day can be found in the public celebration of the Sovereign’s Birthday in England. It’s not entirely clear when this began, since all of the sources I could find basically contradicted each other. But the most popular answer is that it started with King George III, during the 1780s. This “celebration” usually consisted of the Trooping the Colour, which is essentially a military parade where each regiment’s colours (flags) are displayed prominently. This custom continues to this day, and each year Queen Elizabeth attends the Horse Guards’ “The Queen’s Birthday Parade”, which is also televised nationally in the UK.
Get Your Pitchforks!
In Canada, the celebration of the Sovereign’s Birthday was also the date for the annual mustering of the local militia, where all of the men involved in the militia presented themselves for inspection and training. Clicking on this link will take you to a funny sketch of one muster. Notice the pitchforks. Once the inspection and/or training was finished, the militiamen dispersed, often to play games like horseshoes, or just plain fighting. There may or may not have been alcohol involved, because nothing says fun like firearms and booze.
Making It Official
This all changed after 1845, when the Sovereign’s Birthday was declared a public holiday, now to be known as the Queen’s Birthday, in honour of Queen Victoria. And here’s where things get really murky. There are no secondary sources that cover this period, and what primary sources are available are limited.
While the topic is covered in the online sources I mentioned earlier, they don’t provide any footnotes or sources, so I had no way of verifying whether the information was accurate. For example, I can’t find the official act of Parliament that made the Sovereign’s Birthday an official holiday (gaaaaaah).
Queen of Canada
According to Garry Toffoli, of the Canadian Royal Heritage Trust, the reason why the Sovereign’s Birthday became a holiday was due to Canada’s close relationship with Queen Victoria. Her father had served in the military here, and she would eventually send all of hers sons and one daughter to live and work here in some capacity. While the holiday was now for civilians, it was still a relatively minor occasion. This happens with many new holidays; I’m still not sure what Family Day is BC is for, other than sleeping in and waffles.
Impolite Canadians (How Rude!)
According to historian Carolyn Harris, writing for the Canadian Encyclopedia, all of this changed due to political instability in the late 1840s. If you’ve taken a Canadian history class, you are aware of the Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions, which happened in 1837-1838 (or you should be!). Both rebellions had their origins in political disputes, but in Lower Canada (Quebec), one of the most important factors was conflict between English and French Quebecers. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but a growing sense of Quebecois Nationalism led to the establishment of a group of political dissidents called Les Patriotes, who believed that Quebec had no place in the British Empire and resented the political and economic dominance of the English.
Expert Tip: Victoria Day in Quebec has official been known as Journée nationale des Patriotes (National Patriotes Day) since 2003. How’s that for a kicker.
While neither rebellion succeeded, tensions between English and French Canadians remained high, ultimately culminating in the burning of the Parliament building in Montreal in 1849.
Expert Tip: Yes, Montreal used to be the capital of the Province of Canada. After the burning of the Parliament Building in 1849, the capital was moved to Ottawa (after briefly going through Toronto) in 1857 by, you guessed it, Queen Victoria. Ottawa was selected for a number of reasons, not the least being its location on the border between Ontario and Quebec, thus potentially eliminating those ethnic tensions (maybe).
Go Big or Go Home
Going back to Garry Toffoli, he claims that Toronto, under the influence of the British America League (a collection of royalist Ontario conservatives), put on a massive celebration of the Queen’s Birthday, “demonstrating Canadian pride in their country and their Queen,” and that this style of celebration spread across the country quickly thereafter.
Whatever the reasoning, one thing that is clear is that the popularity of the Queen’s Birthday, as it was now referred, was growing. The lithograph on the right depicts one such example, a gathering of 5,000 people at Government House in Toronto in 1854, to “give cheers to their queen.”
And this is when we come to another large gap in the records: there is no substantive information, either from secondary sources or primary sources, on how the holiday was celebrated during the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s. Lynne Marks has written about the celebration of public holidays in her book, Revivals and Roller Rinks: Religion, Leisure, and Identity in Late-Nineteenth Century Small Town Ontario. She notes that newspaper articles written in the 1880s and 1890s wax nostalgic about large-scale community celebrations in the 1860s and 1870s, but newspaper articles from the period in question are notorious for making stuff up. So your guess is as good as mine is at this point.
The More Things Change…
But Marks does provide some information on the celebration of Victoria Day in small-town Ontario during the 1880s and 1890s. In general, few people participated in community-wide celebrations of public holidays. Like people today, they just did their own thing. Those who could afford it went away on vacation, and those who could not afford it did the nineteenth-century equivalent of a “staycation” — picnicking and games in neighbourhood parks. The fact that it was the Queen’s Birthday was more or less irrelevant: to the bulk of the population, the working classes, Victoria Day and other public holidays were a rare reprieve from the day-to-day grind of work.
Who Doesn’t Love Chasing Greased Pigs?
While some communities did put on the kind of large-scale celebrations like we see today on Canada Day, these were mostly put on by business associations to either raise money or their community profile. The one exception to this seems to have been celebrations organized by working-class fire companies, that arranged sports competitions, traditional games (three-legged races, potatoes sack races, and my favourite “chasing greased pigs”), torch-lit processions, fireworks, and dances. But these were not celebrations where people were encouraged to put aside their differences and unite as citizens of the British Empire; if anything, they were visible reminders of divisions between people along the lines of social class and gender. 
A Holiday at Rest Stays at Rest
A subtle shift in the Queen’s Birthday celebrations began in 1896. Queen Victoria had, by that point, been monarch for fifty-nine years. Just like today, the majority of the population had only even known one British Monarch, and the Queen’s Birthday had been a holiday for over fifty years. But everyone knew that Victoria was approaching the end of her life, which would result in a new date being the Sovereign’s Birthday. So it’s at this time that we start to see calls to make the Queen’s Birthday into a permanent public holiday (I’d like to see you try to convince anyone to give up a day off because someone in England died). My favourite example of this comes from The Canadian Magazine, which argued that
Every small boy is interested in the proposal [for Victoria Day], for as their fathers shouted:
‘Hip, hip, hurrah,
For the Queen’s Birthday!
If you don’t give us a holiday,
We’ll all run away..’
It would be hardly fair to deny their sons the privilege.
But things start to get murky again here. The 1890s was a strange period in Canadian history where Canadians were heavily invested in the idea of the British Empire (Insert Star Wars joke here). The British Empire was experiencing something of a renaissance after decades of declining fortunes. This renaissance came at the expense of the Indigenous peoples of Africa, after the British and other European powers decided to colonize “the dark continent.” Canada would fight its first overseas war in Africa, participating in the Boer Wars.
Back in Canada, the British Empire was all the rage. We can even see this in the Queen’s Birthday. After 1897, most of the calls to make it a permanent holiday had more to do with making it a day to celebrate the British Empire than to celebrate Queen Victoria. For instance, The Canadian Magazine argued that that we should make the Queen’s Birthday a permanent holiday, to be renamed Victoria Day (in her honour), because
It will commemorate the transition of Canada from the pioneer stage with sparse population, limited facilities for travel and few educational advantages, its government directed largely from Downing Street and locally administered by the Family Compact, to a nation with Responsible Government and almost exclusive control of its own affairs, occupying rather the relation of an ally to the Mother country than that of a colony, and enjoying all the advantages which the education and enterprise of the nineteenth century can give. […] As a holiday it has become a part of our national life, and will be greatly missed unless we preserve it. Let us have Victoria Day!
Is it the Queen’s Birthday or Empire Day?
The connection between the Queen’s Birthday and the British Empire grew even stronger after Queen Victoria’s Son, Edward VII, declared the day before the Queen’s Birthday as Empire Day (because hey, let’s make it more confusing). Empire Day was created in 1898 by Clementia Trenholme, a minister’s wife in Hamilton, Ontario, to celebrate Canadian’s “dual loyalty” to both the British Empire and to Canada. Students in Hamilton therefore participated in parades, listened to speeches, and even participated in writing competitions, all on the theme of the British Empire. Empire Day would be officially adopted in 1904, and although it took place on the day before Victoria Day, the two were often conflated. To give you one example, here’s an excerpt from an article on Victoria Day, published in The Canadian Courier in 1907:
For over sixty years we kept the Queen’s birthday, and each year found the “loyal passion for our temperate kings” more strong and steadfast. The longest reign in British history saw Canada emerge from misgovernment, rebellion, and insignificance into a national unity and prosperity which have placed her in the proud position of premiere colony. […] Thus, to the satisfaction of all British subjects, the day which saw the birth of Alexandrina Victoria is to be kept in old festive fashion as Victoria Day. 
While it’s all dressed up in flowery language, it’s important to remember that Imperialism isn’t something that is glorious or celebratory. The Victorian era in Canada was one of the most violent in terms of colonialism. Indigenous peoples across the country were driven off their lands, lied to, forcefully assimilated, starved, and killed, all in the name of civilization, progress, and the Canadian Nation. It’s not an attractive part of Canadian history, but it’s one that we need to remember if we are to ever address the legacy of colonialism in Canada today.
Expert Tip: There was an attempt in 2013 to rename Victoria Day to Victoria and First Peoples Day, in honour of the historic relationship between Indigenous peoples and Queen Victoria, but it ultimately failed.
From Queen’s Birthday to Victoria Day
It would take until 1901, after the death of Queen Victoria, that the Queen’s Birthday was renamed as Victoria Day and established as a permanent holiday. Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day in 1958, and continued to be celebrated on the day before Victoria Day until 1973. After this date, it was moved to the second Monday in March so as to be consistent throughout the Commonwealth Countries, at which point it stopped existing for most Canadians.
Expert Tip: While May 24th was officially Victoria Day, it was changed to May 25 if May 24 happened to fall on a Sunday. This is because Sunday was supposed to be a time for church and reflection, not fireworks and picnics.
It’s Cold in Canada
And then finally, because we had to make it more complicated, for many Canadians, Victoria Day marks the beginning of spring. Where I live in BC, spring happens in February, and it’s always fun posting pictures of flowers on Instagram while my family and friends in Montreal are still buried under snow (muahaha). But in many parts of Canada, like Montreal, it’s not unheard of to have a random snowstorm in May. So most people wait until the official “last frost,” and if you’re extra paranoid, a little bit longer, to plant flowers, vegetables, and herbs. It’s also a fixed date after which point Canadians can rely on warmer weather.
And this isn’t just a recent phenomenon. Just listen to one writer talk about his memories of Victoria Day:
What memories of fire-crackers and picnics, of the first appearance of a new white gown and the first row up the river arise at a mere glance at the red-lettered twenty-fourth on the calendar. […] Even in a far land the grown-up Canadian recalls on the twenty-fourth the fine careless rapture of those early days and sighs for the Spring of long ago. Sometimes there was a church festival, although it was a trifle early for strawberries and ice cream. On glorious occasions there were fireworks in the town park or on the village commons and small persons stood entranced at the sight of crowns shedding golden fire and rockets that gave a ruddy splendour to a day that was all too short.
While admittedly the language is hilarious, the connection between the holiday and the spring is pretty clear to see. And if picnics weren’t your thing, Victoria Day was also the first field day of the Season for the Entomological Society of Ontario, Montreal Branch.
Once again, there are no records about what happened in between the 1890s and the 1950s regarding the celebration of Victoria Day. We do know that the association between Victoria Day and the Sovereign’s Birthday remained intact. Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII celebrated Victoria Day as his official birthday, despite being born in November. Though his immediate successors moved it around by a few weeks, when Queen Elizabeth took the throne in 1952, Victoria Day once again became the official birthday of the monarch, though she was born in April. The one change that was made was that the date was moved to the Monday before May 25th, ensuring that the holiday was a long weekend. 
Expert Tip: And this is the way it’s stayed, though it will be interesting to see what happens after Queen Elizabeth dies.
The association between Victoria Day and the British Empire, however, became less and less important. Jose Igartua explored this in his book, The Other Quiet Revolution: National Identities in English Canada, 1945-71. When discussing Victoria Day, he points to newspaper articles published in the 1950s complaining about the declining popularity of Victoria Day, and particularly its connection to the British Empire. In some cases, even the newspapers conflated Victoria Day and Empire Day. Igartua uses this as evidence in his argument about the declining “Britishness” of Canada, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is the entire explanation. It’s not entirely clear that anyone ever really cared about the meaning behind Victoria Day.
So Where Does This Leave Us?
It’s not a satisfying response, but I think the real reason that we celebrate Victoria Day is because we have, for over a hundred years. As one 1912 magazine put it, “an ancient custom is hard to disestablish.” Our current celebrations are a mishmash of traditions dating back to the eighteenth century, but ultimately everyone has their own way of celebrating Victoria Day. And that’s totally fine. As Cyndi Lauper put it, some girls just wanna have fun.
More importantly, this is a great example that shows that history is never straightforward and there are no easy answers. Sometimes you can research until you’re blue in the face and still end up with nothing but a mess. Whether it’s because the original sources were lost in a fire, or maybe no one’s interested in writing about a topic, sometimes there just aren’t any answers to the questions that we ask, because even historians are only human.
So have you ever had a massive research fail? Spent time bashing your head against the wall because you couldn’t fit the pieces together? Or do you have any interesting stories or experiences about Victoria Day? Let me know in the comments below!
* Many thanks to Clare Dale, Catherine Ulmer, Jessica Bailey, Rebecca McKnight, Caroline Crochet, Miki Tse, and Lee Blanding for helping me make sense of this. I have awesome friends.
- Strangely enough, Victoria Day has ended up as an auspicious date in Canadian history. There have been two major disasters (more on that in a sec) during Victoria Day. The Statistics Act, which created what we now call Statistics Canada (Go Census!), was passed on May 24, 1918. Women over the age of 21 gained the right to vote in federal elections on May 24, 1916. And on May 24, 2000, there was an outbreak of E. coli in Walkerton, Ontario, which most of you will already be familiar with.
- The first disaster I spoke up happened on Victoria Day in 1881, and is now known as one of Canada’s worst maritime disasters. It was the last trip on a sunny and warm day, and the aptly-named double-decker steamboat “Victoria” was returning to the city of London, Ontario, after several excursions on the Thames River (yes, it’s actually called that) near the popular Springbank Park in honour of the Queen’s birthday. Several sources report that the steamboat was severely overloaded, with between 600 to 800 passengers on a ship built for 100 to 300 passengers (again, accounts differ on the exact numbers).
- What happened next is unclear. One account suggested the “the boat began to rock, and the crowd surged from one side to the other with each oscillation, rather enjoying the motion instead of being in any way alarmed.” The ship, being overloaded, was already riding low in the water, and began to flood. Officers tried to calm the passengers to no avail.
- Then, “The crowd surged from side to side, and with each movement the vessel took in an increasing amount of water on the lower deck, to the terror or some and the delight of many more of those below. Few seemed to foresee danger. Suddenly the position became alarming, when nearly opposite Cove Bridge. The water to the depth of a foot or more rushed in on the south side of the boat, and the crowed surged again to the north, the boat slowly following the movement by listing over to that side. This time the vessel almost turned on her edge and the deck floor became elevated to an angle not far from the perpendicular. All at once the supports of the upper deck gave way with a terribly crash, on account of the unnatural position and the great weight imposed over the railings. The people tumbled in hundreds headlong into the deep water, and the whole of the upper deck and supports went crashing down on upon the people below, tearing and bruising the struggling victims, who thus became imprisoned in a dreadful watering tomb. The scene that followed beggars description. Between the wreck and the shore could be seen scores of human beings who had become liberated from the mass of de[accent]bris. Many who were so stunned by the crash as to be unconscious sank without an effort.” (The Victoria’s Victims: Terrible Scenes Attending the Ontario Disaster, New York Times, May 27, 1881, 5.)
- The second disaster happened on May 26th, 1896, in Victoria, BC. A street car filled with 143 people were crossing the Point Ellice Bridge (Bay Street) in the Upper Habour on their way to attend the Queen’s Birthday celebrations when it crashed. In total, fifty-five people were killed, and only the people on the left side of the street car survived. To see an amazing recreation as well as archival photographs of this event, check out The Point Ellice Bridge Disaster
 Lynne Marks, Revivals and Roller Rinks Religion, Leisure and Identity in Late Nineteenth Century Small Town Ontario (Toronto, Ont: University of Toronto Press, 1996): 133-139.
 “Victoria Day,” The Canadian Magazine 8, no. 6 (April 1897): 341.
 “Her Majesty’s Sixty Years Sovereignty,” The Canadian Magazine 7, no. 6 (October 1896): 565.
 Michihisa Hosokawa, “Making Imperial Citizens: Empire Day in Canada.” Journal Of American & Canadian Studies no. 25 (March 2007): 49-73.
 “Victoria Day,” The Canadian Courier 1, no. 26 (May 25, 1907): 11.
 For more on this, you can consult J. R. Miller, “Victoria’s ”Red Children”: The ”Great White Queen Mother” and Native-Newcomer Relations in Canada.” Native Studies Review 17, no. 1 (July 2008): 1-23.
 “Victoria Day,” The Canadian Courier 1, no. 26 (May 25, 1907): 11.
 “Entomological Society of Ontario, Montreal Branch,” The Canadian Entomologist 41, no. 7 (July 1909): 219.
 Jose Igartua, The Other Quiet Revolution National Identities in English Canada, 1945-71 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006), 107-109.
 “People and Places,” The Canadian Courier XI, no. 24 (May 11, 1912): 30.