"The 24th of May is the Queen’s birthday and if we don’t get a holiday we’ll all run away."
This little ditty, delivered in a child’s sing-song rhythm, used to ring out across schoolyards in the 1950s and ’60s in anticipation of the Victoria Day Holiday.
As kids, we didn’t especially care one way or the other if the holiday fell on the 24th of May, or the 22nd as it did this year, as long as we got an extra day off school and could stay up late to watch the fireworks.
That’s right, fireworks to celebrate the old Queen’s birthday: whirling pinwheels nailed to a fence post you didn’t mind scorching; Roman candles that invariably burped out one last coloured fireball into an unsuspecting uncle’s face just as he leaned over it to check if it was dead; and, if your family was tres tres outré , a burning schoolhouse for the grand finale.
Fearing early onset vandalism and the start of a life of crime, our parents would never let us have a burning schoolhouse for May 24.
So we would have to traipse through the neighbourhood, sussing out all the other homegrown displays until we spotted a miniature red-brick cardboard building about to go up in flames. A pathetic little streak of sparkles and flame would burst out of the cardboard chimney before the rest of the schoolhouse ignited to a rousing round of cheers from every juvenile delinquent around. Come to think of it, some adults roared their approval, too.
While this really is a food column – we’ll get to that part later – the ever-widening gap between the Victoria Day weekend and the good Queen herself compelled me to blow the dust off a bit of obscure Canadiana, and dispel the notion once and for all that, no, this isn’t just a weekend created to grab your tent and go camping, jamming the highways in one of the busiest and bloodiest road warrior sessions of the year.
Believe it or not, monarchist or not, May 24 in Canada is actually intended to celebrate the reigning sovereign’s birthday. Whether you choose to do so campily, reverently or not at all is up to you.
The May 24 tradition goes way back. The sovereign's birthday has been celebrated in Canada since the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). May 24, Queen Victoria's birthday, was declared a holiday by the legislature of the Province of Canada in 1845 (oh, to realize that Canada was a province before it was confederated).
After the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, Canada established May 24 as a legal holiday (or May 25 if the 24th fell on a Sunday) called Victoria Day. In 1957, Victoria Day was permanently designated as the Queen's birthday.