Victoria Day: Its royal roots have changed over the years

Despite its rich historical background and connection to the British monarchy, Victoria Day has become a time for Canadians to welcome the summer with a barbecue and some brewskis. Victoria herself doesn't get much thought these days.
For many Canadians, the May 24 long weekend means barbecues, patios and cottage living. But a century and a half ago, it meant celebrating the birth of Queen Victoria, Canada's 'Mother of Confederation.' (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

As Canadians across the country venture out to their cottages or stumble onto sun-drenched patios this May long weekend, it's probably safe to say that many of them won't be giving much thought to the woman behind the holiday.

Despite its rich historical background and connection to the British monarchy, Victoria Day, which is held every year on the Monday before May 25, has become little more than a time for Canadians to welcome the summer with a barbecue and some brewskis — much to the delight of retailers.

[Advertisers] want to tap into that Canadiana and use the embers of patriotism and tradition to connect with their own brand.- Michael Mulvey, marketing expert

"Grocery stores do an amazing job of putting up some fantastic point-of-purchase displays that are themed around the May two-four long weekend — with all the condiments and hot dogs and buns and hamburgers and chips and pop and everything under the sun," says Brent Barr, an instructor with the Ted Rogers School of Retail Management at Ryerson University.

"Stores like Loblaws will have umbrellas and clothing, [and] stores like Walmart will absolutely have some fairly significant displays on hand," he adds.

Barr says these in-store displays can drive up sales of a product by about 50 per cent. Long-weekend-themed circulars are another way retailers try to draw in shoppers leading up to Victoria Day.

"[Advertisers] are always trying to find cultural meanings that they can anchor their message to," says Michael Mulvey, an assistant professor of marketing in the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.

"When it comes to Victoria Day, when it comes to opening up the cottage, there's a tremendous sense of continuity and a tremendous sense of place that's associated with that," Mulvey suggests. "So I think [advertisers] want to tap into that Canadiana and use the embers of patriotism and tradition to connect with their own brand and show that the brand itself has a place in these rituals."

Celebrating the 'Mother of Confederation'

Those rituals have changed for Canadians over the last century and a half.

A lithograph showing an 1854 celebration of Queen Victoria's birthday, held on the grounds of the second Government House of Upper Canada, at the corner of King and Simcoe Streets in Toronto. (Public domain)
Victoria Day, as the name suggests, marks the birth of Queen Victoria, who reigned over the Commonwealth for 63 years, from 1837 to 1901 (although the day in Canada also commemorates the official birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, who was actually born in April). Called the "Mother of Confederation," she is often credited with helping to unite the provinces into a Canadian state.

The day's roots go back to 1845 when the province of Canada, just one of Britain's colonies at the time, officially declared May 24 a public holiday to mark the Queen's birthday. People would use this rare day off from working on their farms and in factories to attend public gatherings.

Much like today, the holiday had a strong social aspect and was associated with the coming of summer, but the way it was celebrated and the significance it carried in the public consciousness was different, says Garry Toffoli, executive director of the Canadian Royal Heritage Trust.

A portrait of Queen Victoria, painted by Alexander Melville in 1845. (Public domain)
"In Victoria's time there was, I think, more a sense of communal celebrations...the idea of coming together and having giant picnics with hundreds of thousands of people," Toffoli says.

A lithograph print dated 1854 shows large crowds of people gathered in front of Government House in Toronto, some waving Union Jacks, to celebrate the Queen's birthday.

During her lifetime, there were also garden parties, foot races, torchlight parades, gun salutes and sporting competitions. The Queen's Plate, Canada's oldest thoroughbred horse race, got its start as an event at one of Victoria's birthday celebrations. 

"The main holiday of the year was the Queen's birthday," Toffoli says.

From picnics to patios

Things began to shift after Victoria's death in 1901. That year, the Canadian Parliament officially dubbed it "Victoria Day," and it became a day of remembrance for the late monarch.

"[Before 1901] she was a real, living person that you were celebrating," Toffoli says. "After Victoria died, it became a historical event."   

Victoria Day eventually began to be overshadowed by Dominion Day, now called Canada Day, although its social nature and place in the seasonal calendar has given it staying power. Victoria Day fireworks displays in most communities produce big crowds. And it's often the first weekend of the year when garden annuals can safely be planted without the risk of frost. 

But shifting attitudes towards the British monarchy may also have had a role in why the royal roots of Victoria Day are now mostly lost. Many Canadians now tell pollsters they don't want to continue having a member of the British royal family serve as Canada's head of state.

King George VI, his daughter Princess Margaret and his wife, Queen Elizabeth watch Princess Elizabeth with her year-old daughter Princess Anne at Balmoral Castle, Scotland, in August 1951. (Associated Press)
This growing ambivalence toward the monarchy could be a reason why Canadian advertisers tend to avoid using royal imagery in their Victoria Day promotions (along with regulations surrounding their commercial use).

"Even though it is Queen Victoria's birthday, there may be a large proportion of people in the province of Ontario who just don't care — or it might even be perceived as negative," Barr suggests. "So that makes me think…that we just don't want to offend someone by using it."

Nevertheless, Toffoli says that with Queen Victoria's significance to Canada's history, she deserves to be remembered, and he encourages people to celebrate the past along with present.

"If people want to celebrate in their backyard and actually get through a case of beer, [then] give a toast to Queen Victoria, give a toast to Elizabeth II, and give a toast to the fact that we're fortunate enough to live in this country," he says.