When Victoria was born on May 24, 1819, few people expected she would ascend the throne, for she was a female and there were three brothers ahead of her father in the line of succession. By 1837, she had survived them all and was duly crowned Queen at the tender age of 18. Her rule was long, nearly 64 years, and glorious – if you discount racism, classism and social and economic inequality. She oversaw the evolution of responsible government after rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada in the first and second years of her reign, the industrial revolution, the expansion of her Empire until a quarter of the globe was tinted British Imper-
ial pink, and the birth of Canada as a nation in 1867.
The practice of celebrating her birthday in this country dates back to 1845, more than 20 years before Confederation. By the 1890s, it was a patriotic holiday that typically began with the ringing of church bells, and continued with bands marching to rousing renditions of The Maple Leaf Forever, soldiers parading, politicians pontificating and schoolchildren setting off firecrackers and chanting: “The twenty-fourth of May/Is the Queen's birthday;/ If they don't give us a holiday/We'll all run away!” After a picnic supper, if the day were fine, fireworks were illuminated against the night sky with, as a grand finale, a ritual burning of a miniature schoolhouse.
All of that may sound quaint nowadays, though Victoria's great-great-great-grandson Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, are actually touring the country on the holiday this year. The institution of the Crown has evolved, but our dedication to a holiday near the end of May has remained stalwart. It marks the definition between winter and summer and is duly commemorated in private and public ways across much of the land. Nobody with any sense would ever plant annuals, open cottages, go camping or swim in a lake before the 24th of May. The Queen's birthday – it is Queen Elizabeth II's official Canadian birthday – is the occasion for a celebration, but we are also honouring our own traditions and our own past. The origins of the holiday may be Imperial, but the practice is decidedly Canadian.
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