Strawberry socials: What are they and why do Islanders love them?

Summer on P.E.I. is slowly coming to an end, and with a few weeks of August left, you might want to take advantage of one the Island's time-honoured traditions: the strawberry social.

'When you think of it, it fits into a pattern of our culture on Prince Edward Island'

Strawberry socials are a time-honoured tradition on P.E.I. Historian Ed MacDonald says it's in large part due to how difficult it used to be to grow strawberries. (CBC)

Summer on P.E.I. is slowly coming to an end, and with a few weeks of August left, you might want to take advantage of one the Island's time-honoured traditions: the strawberry social.

If you've never been to one, Islanders might say you're missing out on what is typically some delicious shortcake and ice cream, topped with fresh strawberries.

But for some, it's often more than just the chance for some dessert. The strawberry social has has evolved from social events to raise money to political parties hosting them to meet with members of the public.

Whether you've been to one every year since you were born, or have yet to attend your first, here a six things to know about strawberry socials on P.E.I.:

1. We might love them, but we didn't start them

While Islanders have enthusiastically participated in strawberry socials for many years, UPEI historian Ed MacDonald said it likely originated elsewhere.

He said there are early references to strawberry socials in Ontario in old newspapers, but that it seemed to pick up steam on P.E.I. in the early 1900s. 

"Many of the qualities appreciated by a social ... are qualities shared by New Brunswickers and Ontarians and Albertans," MacDonald said.

For P.E.I. the strawberry social seems to have been born as a way to raise money.

"When you start seeing these appearing and they gradually increase in reference in the newspapers at least over the course of the century, almost always they're something that's organized by a church group or an organization."

2. It took a lot of effort to host one

Enthusiasm for the social was likely because of the rarity of strawberries in the early 1900s.

Wild, fresh strawberries were hard work to pick, and wouldn't last long if you weren't making jam, says MacDonald. To have a social with a bunch of strawberries was a 'real treat.' (Ferne Williams)

"To get a bunch of berries to have a social is a lot of effort, and of course ice cream at this point is also made by hand so it's a real treat," said MacDonald.

Islanders could preserve strawberries into jams, but to have fresh strawberries was particularly special and would have been a great draw for crowds. 

3. There's nothing exclusive about them

Even though strawberries were seen as a special treat in the early 1900s, MacDonald said there was nothing exclusive about socials. 

"It's been a communal sort of gathering just as it would have been a sort of communal event to host and organize that kind of event."

Many people are involved in hosting strawberry socials, from the strawberry picker, cake baker and event organizer.

4. Strawberry socials geared toward tourists

From the 1950s up to the 1970s, the strawberry social had branched out beyond just an event for Islanders, becoming an attraction for tourists. 

Socials were less common than they are now, which would be a big draw for visitors, but according to MacDonald, that wouldn't last.

"By the 1980s and '90s, everyone was having a social. Strawberries were all over the lawns of the Island," he said.

5. Politicians use them to keep finger on pulse of community

In recent years, politicians have taken to hosting strawberry socials of their own. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended a strawberry social hosted by the Liberal party during his visit to P.E.I. 

MacDonald said he can only speculate why socials are such a draw for politicians, but that hosting this type of event can bridge the gap between Islanders and government.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended a strawberry social hosted by the Liberal Party during his recent visit to P.E.I. (Canadian Press )

"You need to kiss some babies and shake hands in an informal event where people can have some fun," MacDonald said.

6. Islanders love socials as way to get outside and help one another

But when it comes down to it, MacDonald said the love for these events are born from Islanders' love of summer, and getting outside.

"When you think of it, it fits into a pattern of our culture on Prince Edward Island," MacDonald said. "We like to get out in the summer and we also like to help each other."

And if you're going to attend a social yourself, MacDonald recommends this combination as the most ideal:

"Wild strawberries on a shortcake, which would look a little like a biscuit but sweeter, crowned with strawberry sauce and a little bit of ice cream. What could be better?"

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