When I was a child, we referred to Victoria Day as “Fire-Cracker Day.” There were few public displays of fireworks, and even if there had been, it would have required a streetcar ticket to travel to the site. We lived in the Township of York, and up and down the street, on Victoria Day, we sat on our front veranda and watched as our dad ignited the firecrackers. When our supply was exhausted, we watched the neighbours’ displays.
The History of Canada’s Spring holiday – Victoria Day
Queen Victoria, born 24 May 1819, ascended the British throne in 1837, at eighteen years of age, on the death of her uncle, King William 1V. The legislature of Canada West, the province later renamed Ontario, established the monarch’s birthday as a holiday in 1845, naming it Empire Day. This was an act of true homage to the queen, as in 1845 Christmas Day was not granted to employees as a time off work. It was solely at the discretion of the employer.
If 24 May were on a Saturday or Sunday, the holiday was observed on the following Monday. In 1867, when four Canadian provinces joined to create the Dominion of Canada, they continued to celebrate the holiday in Ontario. In 1876, Victoria was crowned Empress of India, which engendered further prestige for the monarch.
When Victoria died in 1901, after reigning sixty-four years, the Parliament of Canada established the 24th as a national holiday, and changed its name to Victoria Day. In 1952, the government decided that the Victoria Day holiday would occur each year on the Monday prior to 25 May, and this has remained to the present era.
Today, many people suggest that the name of the holiday in May be changed. They consider it a hangover from colonial days, and assert that it has no meaning in Canada today. Dumping one’s heritage is not an indication of national maturity. Every nation has holidays and symbols that represent its past. Americans celebrate Columbus Day, to honour an Italian who never set foot on their soil.
Quebec treasures the fleur-de-lis in its provincial flag, despite the fact that it is an ancient symbol specifically associated with the Bourbon monarchs of France. To accuse the Quebecois of colonial immaturity, because they honour their royal past, would be unthinkable. Today, most Quebecers ignore the historical significance of the symbols on their flag, and they would never consider replacing them with ones that are more modern.
In ancient times, Italy was colonized by the Greeks, whose culture and architecture became integrated into the Roman civilization. Even today, Italians would never dream of eliminating the Greek building styles and names from their cities because they originated in a foreign country. The past is an ever-abiding component of the present. Today, Queen Victoria’s name graces cities, streets, and colleges. We refer to architecture, fashions, literature, and even wallpaper as Victorian. It is also the name of an era in history.
Perhaps the problem is that we have a holiday named after a British queen, but none for our important Canadian personages. Macdonald, Cartier, and Laurier are not honoured by a special day. To correct this imbalance, Canada should commence paying homage to our own heroes, but not by eliminating personages from our past. To recognize and respect a nation’s heritage is a sign of cultural maturity.
My grandfather understood these principles. Though he was a proud Newfoundlander, he was also a loyal Canadian. Newfoundland and Canada shared a common heritage, but there were vast differences. For example, Dominion Day (Canada Day) was not a part of his past. In Newfoundland, 1 July commemorated the battle of Beaumont Hummel, which occurred during the First World War. In his native village, they had not celebrated Victoria Day. However, though he honoured his own heritage, he embraced the traditions of his adopted country. As an immigrant, he said that he felt that he was a “true” Canadian, because he had chosen the country, rather than receiving his citizenship by a mere accident of birth.
Below is a section from the book Arse Over Teakettle that describes a Victoria Day weekend enjoyed by a family in Toronto during the Second World War.
On the Friday before the Victoria Day holiday in 1945, my dad splurged and spent three dollars on firecrackers at a store on Oakwood Avenue. Among them were a Burning Schoolhouse, Pinwheels, Comets, Whiz-bangs, Fountains, and Sparklers. However, the most impressive were the Roman Candles, which rocketed flares high into the night sky. They exploded in bursts of sparkling colour, and sizzled noisily as they fell earthward.
My father told me that when he had been a boy in Newfoundland, the people of Burin referred to the 24th holiday as Trouting Day. It was when men and boys journeyed to the ponds for the opening of the trout-fishing season. When his brothers had been young men living in Toronto, when prohibition ended and alcohol sales resumed, they had referred to the day as the “May two-four day.” This referred to the date in May, as well as the slang expression for a case of twenty-four bottles of beer, a “Two-Four,” the most common way they packaged the brew.
On our street in Toronto, as the sun dipped slowly toward the western horizon, our anticipation increased. We gathered on the veranda, and anxiously waited for night skies to blanket the city. There were a few public displays in the parks, but none within easy travelling distance of our home. As a result, families in our neighbourhood purchased their own fireworks. After dark, we lit “whiz-bangs,” also referred to as “squibs,” which were small firecrackers, and tossed them into the street, where they exploded like gunshots. We waved sparklers in the air forming patterns of light. Finally, my dad set-off the serious firecrackers. Showers of flames burst from the curbs beside the sidewalk and rocket flares exploded, the scene reminiscent of a battlefield. My brother and I cheered as the Burning Schoolhouse was demolished in flames.
Neighbours staggered their contributions so that not everyone’s displays were at the same time. All up and down Lauder Avenue, for over an hour, the night sky was broken with burst of light. When one family had exhausted their supply, they watched the other’s contributions. Adults supervised carefully, to prevent a mishap.
My brother Ken was entranced, and never lost his love of fireworks. Even as an adult, he travelled considerable distances throughout the city to observe displays. On the night of 24 May 1945, I sat beside him and shared the excitement. After we went upstairs to bed, we crept into the front bedroom to see the last explosions. A few teenagers always acquired some firecrackers and set them off after the families with young children had retired from the scene. The next day, when Ken and I walked to school, we saw in the curbs the charred remains of the previous night’s revelries.
Like “next-day” pumpkins and retired Christmas trees, they were sad reminders of a glorious time well spent.