Many Canadians consider 24 May – or “May Two-Four” – the unofficial beginning of summer each year, although the summer solstice does not occur until late June. By May, however, the weather is warming, snow is all or mostly gone, new plants are sprouting, tourist sites are opening, and Canadians who have been confined by winter begin to venture out on drives and trips – thus making it an ideal time for a long weekend.
The origin of our 24 May holiday dates back to 1837, when young Queen Victoria came to the throne of the United Kingdom – she was born on 24 May 1819. The British and British North Americans traditionally celebrated their monarch’s birthday with military parades, reviews, and other events. Victoria’s ascension, however, was seen as an opportunity to create common ground between English and French citizens in Canada; both peoples perceived loyalty to the monarchy as a differentiation between Canadians and Americans. In 1845, the Province of Canada’s legislature declared the Queen’s Birthday to be a public holiday; it was held on the actual date, or on the next day if the 24th fell on a Sunday.
Peterborough, like most Canadian communities, marked Victoria Day in style – with closed shops, parades (often organized and led by local militia units or the fire brigade), banquets, public steamboat excursions, and fireworks. While most Victoria Days went well, occasionally holiday events went awry: in 1855 the guest Cobourg Fire Brigade returned home early and abruptly from Peterborough, somehow having been insulted during a controversial hose competition with their host brigade.
After Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, her birthday remained a public holiday in Canada. In 1952, Victoria Day was changed from 24 May and fixed annually as the Monday before that date, thus creating the long weekend of today. 1957 saw the Canadian government designate Victoria Day as the official birthday of Queen Elizabeth II also, although her actual birthday is 21 April.
Whether you spend your Victoria Day opening a cottage, travelling, or at home, we all can look forward to the imminent arrival of summer’s warm and sunny days.
By: Don Willcock On behalf of The Peterborough Museum & Archives
300 Hunter St E, Peterborough, 705-743-5180