It’s a little hard to believe.
Here we are, well into the 21st century in Canada, and yet we still celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday as a holiday, over 100 years since her passing.
Observed here since 1845, it became a legal day off by federal decree after the Queen’s demise in 1901 – Victoria being the first sovereign of a confederated Canada. At various times, it’s also been called Empire Day and Commonwealth Day, all in homage to this far-flung domain of Her Royal Highness.
Victoria Day is a distinctly Canadian holiday. The only other country in the Commonwealth to observe the celebration is Scotland – though it’s not a bank holiday there, meaning government offices and banks remain open.
The Empress of the Empire’s birthday falls on May 24th. After much dithering by the Canadian politicos over when to mark it, it is now consistently held on the last Monday before the 25th of May.
But in truth, today the holiday has very little to do with this pudgy little queen’s birthday.
In fact, it has everything to do with the end of cold weather and short days – and a lot to do with delicious food as well!
Victoria Day officially wraps up the winter social scene, and marks the informal start of the summer season.
There are some other names for the holiday (one which we’ll take a look at in a bit) that don’t have to do with the English queen at all, and mostly due to the not-so-pro-royalty mindset of some among us (like my mother, of Scottish heritage)!
Similarly in Quebec, they tend to stay away from the whole British-loyalist thing, with the day dubbed National Patriots’ Day.
Regardless of what it’s called, all of us finally emerge from our igloos, and open up our warmer cottages. Crowds throng to the beaches, Mounties brighten every parade in their red uniform jackets, and three-day fêtes are held in parks from coast to coast… to coast!
Mukluks are exchanged for flip-flops, and fireworks replace the Northern Lights in the night skies.
While some provinces call it by different names, it’s nevertheless a statutory holiday all across the land, and it is enjoyed in many ways by all – with food being an important feature.
A more common – and apt – moniker for Victoria Day is May Two-Four.
A double-entendre, it’s not just a reference to the possible date of the celebration. It’s also Canuck slang for the size of a case of beer here – 24 bottles strong!
On that subject, ice-cold brews are definitely the chosen beverage for the day. But of course, food is always a big part of the celebrations, too.
For example, in some communities of strong English tradition today – such as British Columbia’s provincial capital of Victoria (yes, named for you-know-who) – British-style tea houses do a thriving business during the holiday.
Union Jacks (British flags) are unfurled, and afternoon tea provides celebrants with the royal treatment.
In classic English tradition, there are also plenty of crustless cucumber sandwiches, as well as coronation chicken salads served on fine bone china – followed by dainty cakes and scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam.
All of this is washed down with piping-hot pots of Assam or Darjeeling tea, without a single frosty Canadian brewski in sight!
Naturally, this delicious food is served with copious amounts of beer. One such great is our popular craft beer from the iconic Molson Canadian, with its distinct, regional, and truly Canadian flavors!
This, and so much more, makes for a holiday that is truly unique – read on and you’ll find there’s a lot more on the Victoria Day plate!
A Taste of the True North
One of the most popular days to gather with friends and family, here’s a sampling of what you might find on the Victoria Day barbecue menu north of the 49th Parallel.
Fiddleheads are the tender new shoots of the ostrich fern, which grows abundantly in the eastern regions of Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime provinces.
A delicious spring delicacy, you can cook them up on the griddle with bacon and garlic, then season with salt and pepper.
On the western side of the country in British Columbia and Alberta, wild asparagus is the sought after springtime grilled veggie.
Lightly brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with minced herbs, the tender spears head straight to the grate for a light, healthy sear.
Grass-fed bison burgers
Growing in popularity, bison meat is raised naturally without any of the additives found in beef, such as growth hormones, steroids, or antibiotics.
It’s also a very lean red meat, having 1/3 less fat than beef. Add to that its rich, delicious taste, and it’s right at home on the grill!
If you’re way up north in say, Nunavut, your burgers are more likely to be made of ground muskox meat! It’s just as lean, natural, and tasty as bison.
This native fish can be found on the grills of both East and West-coasters in a variety of forms.
Whole, filets, steaks, burgers, planked, smoked, candied, jerky… you name it! It’s a staple for patio parties.
This culinary crustacean is popular – nay, essential – in the Maritimes, found on barbecue grills in Labrador, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.
You can bet they’ll be served hot off the grill with an herbed butter. Either that, or chilled for a mouth-watering lobster salad.
Similar to salmon, the prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba like to serve up this local wild fare on the grill – in spite of their vast open spaces, cattle ranches, and farms full of beef!
Steelhead trout with a maple glaze is just as much at home during this holiday as a beef tenderloin with creamy garlic sauce.
It’s also early berry season, so chocolate-dipped strawberries must make an appearance.
Boozy blueberries too, marinated in Canadian whiskey, go right on the grill over foil. You can also hit them with a squeeze of fresh orange juice when they start to jump – perfect served over homemade ice cream.
There’s no shortage of sweets to finish off the day, either!
Strawberry rhubarb pies are tantalizing with their sweet and tart flavors. There’s bite-sized apple crisp cups made buttery sweet, while mini cherry cobblers are always a hit.
But also: you can’t make enough maple-butter tarts for any Canadian crowd!
Best of all, don’t forget the rich, decadent Nanaimo Bar. This is a no-bake dessert comprised of a bottom layer of graham cracker crumbs with shredded coconut, filled with a buttery custard, and topped with dark chocolate.
The first known recipe for Nanaimo Bars was of course from Nanaimo, a coastal city on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia.
It was submitted in its very first known recipe to fictional homemaker advice columnist Edith Adams of the Vancouver Sun newspaper. The recipe was then found in the 1952 edition of the Nanaimo Hospital Auxiliary’s Cookbook – and it was Ms. Adams who officially dubbed them Nanaimo Bars.
It was voted Canada’s Favorite Confection back in 2006, and I’m sure it still remains a favorite everywhere around the country today!
While we might hang onto the British queen’s name for old times’ sake, the tradition of Victoria Day is distinctly Canadian – and these days has little to do with anything happening in Britain (or any other part of the world, for that matter).
Unique and idiosyncratic, it really is a delicious part of our national fibre!
So this May Two-Four weekend, join all of us Canadians in raising a tall cold one to toast the day. Happy birthday Vickie, and thanks for the party, eh?
Fascinated by Canadian cuisine and food culture? Then you might like our review of Toronto’s multi-cultural, vibrant food scene.
And what about you, readers? How do you celebrate the arrival of summer in your patch of the globe? Let us know in the comments below, so we can all join in the fun!
Photo credits: Shutterstock.
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.