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Food and Drink

Merry Christmas, Queen Victoria

"The 24th of May is the Queen’s birthday and if we don’t get a holiday we’ll all run away."

This little ditty, delivered in a child’s sing-song rhythm, used to ring out across schoolyards in the 1950s and ’60s in anticipation of the Victoria Day Holiday.

As kids, we didn’t especially care one way or the other if the holiday fell on the 24th of May, or the 22nd as it did this year, as long as we got an extra day off school and could stay up late to watch the fireworks.

That’s right, fireworks to celebrate the old Queen’s birthday: whirling pinwheels nailed to a fence post you didn’t mind scorching; Roman candles that invariably burped out one last coloured fireball into an unsuspecting uncle’s face just as he leaned over it to check if it was dead; and, if your family was tres tres outré , a burning schoolhouse for the grand finale.

Fearing early onset vandalism and the start of a life of crime, our parents would never let us have a burning schoolhouse for May 24.

So we would have to traipse through the neighbourhood, sussing out all the other homegrown displays until we spotted a miniature red-brick cardboard building about to go up in flames. A pathetic little streak of sparkles and flame would burst out of the cardboard chimney before the rest of the schoolhouse ignited to a rousing round of cheers from every juvenile delinquent around. Come to think of it, some adults roared their approval, too.

While this really is a food column – we’ll get to that part later – the ever-widening gap between the Victoria Day weekend and the good Queen herself compelled me to blow the dust off a bit of obscure Canadiana, and dispel the notion once and for all that, no, this isn’t just a weekend created to grab your tent and go camping, jamming the highways in one of the busiest and bloodiest road warrior sessions of the year.

Believe it or not, monarchist or not, May 24 in Canada is actually intended to celebrate the reigning sovereign’s birthday. Whether you choose to do so campily, reverently or not at all is up to you.

The May 24 tradition goes way back. The sovereign's birthday has been celebrated in Canada since the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). May 24, Queen Victoria's birthday, was declared a holiday by the legislature of the Province of Canada in 1845 (oh, to realize that Canada was a province before it was confederated).

After the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, Canada established May 24 as a legal holiday (or May 25 if the 24th fell on a Sunday) called Victoria Day. In 1957, Victoria Day was permanently designated as the Queen's birthday.

Conclusion: despite its name, Victoria Day, which now is quite divorced from the 24th and always hooked on to the Monday preceding it so we are guaranteed that which we all poor working sods all live for – a long weekend – is meant to celebrate the birthday of Elizabeth II, whose birthday really is April 21, but is currently celebrated in England in June, when the likelihood of rain falling on decorative hats is at its lowest. With such confusion reigning, no wonder most people just head for the hills.

Unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool monarchist or Victoriana revivalist, Victoria Day likely barely registers on your radar screen, save for the aforementioned holiday weekend that, in most Canadians’ bloodshot eyes, pretty much kicks off summer.

Other than high tea at the Empress Hotel and the lengthy Victoria Day parade in our provincial capital, nothing too Victorian happens on Victoria Day these days: no special foods, no special rituals.

As opposed to the great slab red-and-white flag cake trotted out for Canada Day, nary a cupcake with an icing crown and silver beads on it is to be seen, never mind fireworks and a burning schoolhouse. (Could the latter be suspiciously linked to that fact that the public school system started in England during Victoria’s reign? I wonder…)

Given the people’s great love for Victoria – she was crowned when she was only 19; her youth and charm generated unparalleled popularity – and the great length of her reign, this dearth is quite amazing. Doubly so given the profusion and effusiveness that marked the Victorian era, especially in terms of trade and the exchange of ideas, cultural and otherwise.

We still think of all things lush, decorative, over-the-top, ornate and overstuffed – as in furniture, not stomachs – as quintessential Victorian: William Morris lovey-dovey silk wallpaper; hideously romantic pre-Raphaelite paintings; ornately carved and tufted armchairs; claustrophobic parlours dripping with doilies, bric-a-brac and, the hallmark of Victoriana status, an upright piano.

If you lived in Victorian London, Billingsgate fish market alone could provide enough profusion and meal combinations to last a lifetime: mussels, cockles, winkles, shrimp, turbot, cod, salmon, plaice, herring, eels, haddock, sole and more. Butchers and specialized merchants offered all manner and cuts of pork, lamb, beef and chicken, including the awful offal we dare not eat today. Fruits and vegetables in countless variety could be had at Covent Garden market just down the way.

If you could afford it, coffee was pouring in from the colonies, as was sugar and cocoa – the Cadbury family made its mark in chocolate in Victorian times – and all sorts of tropical oils, bound to be the mainstay of all good chip shops.

But despite the illusion of plenty, the Industrial Revolution coupled with no social safety net meant that poverty lived next to luxury. Around the time Queen Victoria was born, about one-third of the people of London were living in dire poverty and were lucky to eat roasted rat on a stick. At the time of her coronation, an experienced weaver lucky enough to have a job earned enough to buy 30 loaves of bread a day.

Ironically, if anything has carried over to our times that commemorates Queen Victoria, it has nothing to do with May 24. She married the German Prince Albert in 1840 and from then on the Royal Family observed the German tradition of having a decorated evergreen tree in their home at Christmas. Every good Englishman – and Canadian – soon followed.

So Merry Christmas, Queen Victoria. We’ll toast you on the 25th – of December.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who gives the Victoria Day parade in Victoria the gold medal for having the most marching bands in one spot at one time.