05/15/2015 05:15 EDT | Updated 05/15/2016 05:59 EDT

Victoria Day 2015: 24 facts about the May 24 long weekend

From historic controversy, to Victoria Day disasters, what's known in this country as the unofficial start of summer is Canada's oldest state holiday and as such, one of its most interesting. Here are 24 facts about the holiday weekend lovingly referred to as "May two-four."

1. Why we celebrate Victoria Day isn't clear to some

A 2015 survey of 1,000 people by Canadian family history website suggests that almost half of the respondents didn't know why Canada celebrates Victoria Day. According to the website, 12 per cent of respondents though the first long weekend in May was meant to mark Memorial Day in the U.S., while another 36 per cent said they had no idea. 

2. It is considered the unofficial start of summer in Canada

It's a popular time for travel, as highways across the country clog with traffic as people open up cottages, plant gardens and visit summer getaways. Police forces across the country often use the time of year to mount safety enforcement campaigns in order to curb deaths due to highway and boating accidents, which can sometimes spike over the long weekend.

3. Victoria Day has many names

Officially, it's referred to as Victoria Day or the Sovereign's birthday, but many people call it "the May 24 long weekend," "the May long weekend," it also goes by the nicknames "May long," or "May two-four." Two-four is also another name for a 24-bottle case of beer.

4. May 24 is Canada's oldest state holiday 

According to the federal government, May 24 was first declared a holiday by the legislature of the Province of Canada in 1845 to celebrate Queen Victoria's birthday.

5. Canada wouldn't be a country without Queen Victoria

Victoria was Canada's queen at the time of Confederation in 1867. The fathers of Confederation could not create the new country without her royal assent. Queen Victoria is also credited with turning Ottawa into the nation's capital a decade earlier. In 1857, it was just a small logging town far away from the cities of Quebec City, Montreal, Kingston and Toronto, but the selection of Ottawa was a strategic one. It bordered Ontario and Quebec and was considered a compromise between rival anglophone and francophone politicians. It was also far from the U.S. border and surrounded by dense forest, which military advisors saw as an advantage in the case of an American invasion. 

6. May 24 became a yearly holiday in 1901

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, Parliament made her birthday a yearly holiday. The law called for the holiday to be celebrated every year on May 24. Unless the date fell on a Sunday, in which case Victoria Day would be celebrated on May 25. 

7. Why May two-four doesn't always happen on May 24

In 1952 Parliament declared that Victoria Day would be celebrated on the Monday before May 24 every year. As a result of this convention, the long weekend sometimes falls well before May 24. This year, for example, May 24 falls on a Sunday, but due to the parliamentary decree, the long weekend will run from May 16 -  May 18.

8. Victoria Day is also the Queen's official birthday in Canada

Since 1953, Victoria Day has been recognized as the official birthday of Queen Elizabeth II in Canada. In England, it's celebrated in June, even though she was actually born in April. 

9. Queen Elizabeth II was in Canada only once for her Canadian birthday

During her reign, Elizabeth II has celebrated her official Canadian birthday only once, when she visited Edmonton in 2005. 

10. Victoria Day is not uniquely Canadian

While some believe Victoria Day is a uniquely Canadian institution, it is also celebrated in parts of Scotland, where it's also observed on the Monday before May 24. 

11. The Union Jack is flown 'where physical arrangements allow'

The United Kingdom's national flag, known also as the Union Jack, makes an appearance at public institutions on Victoria Day. It is traditionally flown on Victoria Day with the Canadian flag at federal buildings, airports, military bases and other government establishments within Canada "where physical arrangements allow," according to the federal Heritage department. That means at least two flag poles must exist and the Canadian flag is never replaced by the Union Jack. "If only one pole exists," the official government protocol states, "no special steps should be taken to erect an additional pole to fly the Union Jack for this special day."

12. May 24 is a time to get dirty

Victoria Day is generally considered the time to start planting gardens. "For warmer parts of the country," says Environment meteorologist Geoff Couslon, "frost advisories are issued, as required between May 7 and October 30. For parts of the country whose climate is not as warm, the timeframe for when frost advisories would be issued would begin later and end earlier."

13. One of Canada's worst marine disasters occurred on Victoria Day

In 1881, the celebration of Queen Victoria's birthday was marred by the deaths of 182 people who drowned in London, Ont., after the "Victoria," a double-decked steam ship stuffed with 600 people, overturned on the Thames River. Accounts say that passengers aboard the crowded Victoria rushed to the side of the ship to greet people on another riverboat. The shift in weight aboard the crowded boat caused the lower deck of the Victoria to become partially submerged. The crowds then rushed to the other side of the boat, toppling the ship. 

14. Canada has at least one Victoria Day ghost story

On May 26, 1896, the last day of Queen Victoria's birthday celebrations in Victoria, B.C., turned tragic when a streetcar crowded beyond capacity attempted to cross the Point Ellice Bridge. The structure collapsed under the weight of the tram and the 142 holiday revellers on board, killing 55 people. The disaster is the origin of more than one local ghost story. According to Point Ellice House, a local museum devoted to the Victorian era, a red light can sometimes be seen under the current day bridge. It is said the light has no source and is believed to be a ghostly presence still searching for a lost relative. 

15. May 24 is a date that really counts

On May 24 1918, Parliament passed the Statistics Act. It created the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, which we know today as Statistics Canada. 

16. Women won the right to vote federally on May 24

Legislators gave Canadian-born women over the age of 21 the right to vote in federal elections only on May 24, 1916. Manitoba followed suit that same year, with other provinces giving women the right to vote in 1918 and 1922, with the exception of Quebec. The province didn't give women the vote until 1940.

17. Canada's worst-ever E. coli outbreak becomes deadly

On May 24, 2000, four people – three adults and a baby – died from E. coli poisoning in the quiet town of Walkerton deep in Ontario's rural heartland. In all, seven people died and hundreds became ill from tainted water. The next day, the local medical officer health stunned the country when he told CBC Radio that it could have been prevented. He said the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission knew there was a problem with the water several days before and it could have warned the public. 

18. Victoria Day isn't a paid holiday in Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia does not recognize Victoria Day as a paid public holiday. It means employers don't have to give their employees a paid day off and retail stores aren't required to close. 

19. Or New Brunswick

While New Brunswick does not recognize Victoria Day as a paid public holiday, the province does consider it a day of rest. 

20. Or Newfoundland and Labrador

The government of Newfoundland and Labrador only recognizes six paid public holidays: New Year's Day, Good Friday, Memorial Day (Canada Day), Labour Day, Remembrance Day and Christmas Day. While employers don't have to pay employees to take a day off, they can't open their shops either. According to provincial law Victoria Day is among 10 days a year that shops are not allowed to open, with some exceptions. 

21. It's called National Patriots' Day in Quebec

Victoria Day is a federal holiday, which means it must be observed in all provinces, but nowhere in Canada is Victoria Day more complicated than in Quebec. In 2003, the province declared the first Monday before May 25 as National Patriots Day to honour the 1837 rebellion against the British colonial government. It apparently wasn't very popular at the time. Before that, Victoria Day was known in Quebec as "Fete de Dollard des Ormeaux," named after Adam Dollard, a French soldier who led a military expedition against the Iroquois in Quebec. 

22. May "two-four"

Victoria Day is popularly referred to as "May two-four." A two-four is another name for a 24-bottle case of beer. While there seems to be no hard numbers on the amount of beer consumed from sea to shining sea in Canada, there are anecdotal accounts. Media reports from past years suggest that some Canadian breweries see a 15 to 20 per cent spike in beer sales before the Victoria Day weekend. 

23. Campgrounds are dry

Just because it's called "May two-four" doesn't always mean beer is welcome. Many Canadians who seek to rediscover the outdoors by pitching a tent and sleeping under the stars aren't allowed a drop to drink in public parks. Parks Canada and many provincial parks across the country invoke a total alcohol ban during the Victoria Day weekend in order to cut down on alcohol-related accidents and other booze-fuelled shenanigans. The rules aren't so tight for the rest of year, with most public parks allowing alcohol as long as it stays on your site. 

24. Long may she reign?

In 2013, a group that included some prominent Canadian actors, writers and politicians called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to change the name of Victoria Day. Author Margaret Atwood, Green Party leader Elizabeth May and actor Gordon Pinsent are among those behind an online petition to rename the public holiday as "Victoria and First Peoples Day." The petitioners said the new name would give Canadians a chance to honour both the Crown and the indigenous peoples of Canada. The name never changed and the petition reportedly only ever garnered about 1,500 signatures.