Whether they originated in an act of parliament, religious tradition or just social custom, there are a lot of special days on the Canadian calendar. Officially, Canada has nine public holidays, which everyone gets off work, plus a multitude of unofficial celebrations that often carry almost equal cultural importance. Here’s a brief overview of all.
Christmas (official, December 25)
Christmas is by far the biggest holiday on the Canadian calendar. Officially, it’s the nominal observance of the birth of Jesus Christ, though as is the case in most western nations, Canadian Christmas has steadily evolved into a largely secular celebration centered mostly around gift-giving. So secular, in fact, that even the religious name “Christmas” is itself becoming increasingly phased out in favour of the generic term “holiday” to refer to anything associated with December festivities.
Canada does not have a lot of unique Christmas traditions; like most English-speaking countries, the majority of the songs, decorations and rituals associated with the holiday were imported from England during the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), whose German-born husband Albert (1819-1861), in turn, had imported most of these traditions from his native Bavaria. To this day, hosting a traditional “Victorian Christmas” still remains the fantasy of many Canadians.
In the month-long lead-up to the big day, most Canadians decorate special Christmas trees in their living room, attend Christmas parties with friends, family, and co-workers, and then eventually exchange wrapped gifts with close family members on the morning of December 25 and dine on a lavish Christmas dinner that evening. A lot of families have evolved their own private Christmas customs as well, meaning it can be a bit of a challenge to get too specific about “how Canadians celebrate Christmas.”
The Canadian version of Santa Claus, the mythical Christmas character who gives gifts to good little boys and girls, is mostly identical to the mainstream American version, complete with reindeer, elves and a jolly-faced wife. Since Canada claims to own the North Pole, however, many Canadian children are taught that Santa lives in Canada, and the Canadian post office promotes this idea by pushing a “write to Santa” program that gives the old fellow a Canadian address and postal code.
Boxing Day (official, December 26)
While the lead-up to Christmas is undoubtedly the busiest shopping season of the Canadian year, the day after Christmas is a close second. Called Boxing Day for unclear historical reasons, the holiday is now entirely known as a crazed spectacle of materialistic excess. For one day only, Canadian stores dramatically slash their prices and offer all manner of deals in a thinly-veiled effort to unload much of their unsold, overflow holiday merchandise. Malls and electronic stores tend to be the worst offenders, and it’s not uncommon to see deal-hungry Canadians literally camp out in parking lots on the night of December 25 in order to be first in line when the shops open.
To others, Boxing Day is simply a convenient excuse to head back to the stores and return all the gifts you don’t like.
The American unofficial holiday of Black Friday which is broadly similar to Boxing Day, in the sense of being a day of huge sales at major stores, has started to catch on in Canada in recent years. It occurs on the Friday following American Thanksgiving, which is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.
New Year’s Eve (unofficial, December 31) and New Year’s Day (official, January 1)
The last major milestone of the December holiday season, New Year’s Eve is a chance for Canadians to drink and party one final night before the year changes over. A decidedly adult holiday, New Year’s parties traditionally run until midnight or later, and usually feature fine clothes, hors d’oeuvres and copious amounts of champagne.
Valentine’s Day (unofficial, February 14)
Originally a Catholic observance established to commemorate the legacy of St. Valentine (d. 270), a Christian priest who secretly married couples in defiance of the Roman Empire, modern Valentine’s Day is now a secular celebration of all things romantic. Canadian couples, either married or just dating, are expected to buy small gifts for each other, usually cards, chocolate or a special dinner out, and enjoy a special evening together.
The holiday has also become very popular with elementary school-aged children, who will usually give their classmates cheap, mass-produced cards on February 14 — though obviously these are more about celebrating friendship than love.
Family Day (varies, third Monday in February)
The long stretch of holiday-free weeks between New Year’s and Easter has recently inspired several provinces to invent a new February holiday, most often called “Family Day.” Lacking any real traditions or history, the day is usually declared to be a time to “celebrate families,” mostly by taking a day off work to spend time with them. In Prince Edward Island the holiday is called “Islander Day,” while in Manitoba it is “Louis Riel Day,” after the founder of the province.
St. Patrick’s Day (unofficial, March 17)
With only minor celebrations and virtually no “official” festivities, St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday of very minimal importance in the lives of most Canadians, yet still one that’s likely to be included in any list of “major holidays,” due to its colourful and fun reputation. Named in honour of St. Patrick (385-461), the man credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, “St. Paddy’s Day” is supposed to be a proud celebration of Irish heritage for the millions of Canadians who claim at least some Irish ancestry.
In practice, St. Patrick’s Day tends to be a fairly superficial commemoration of Irish cliches, with decorations of Shamrocks, leprechauns and of course, lots of green. Somewhat unsettlingly, the main profiteers of the day are pubs and bars, which host Paddy’s Day drink specials, including cheap Guinness and dyed green beer. Without putting too fine a point on it, to many, the day is merely “an excuse to get drunk.”
Easter Sunday (official, March or April, day varies)
Like Christmas, Easter is one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar, yet also a holiday that is increasingly celebrated in a purely secular fashion.
According to scripture, Easter commemorates the day when Jesus Christ was resurrected, making it a particularly important day for those who believe in Christ’s divinity. As a result, even “fair weather” Christians who do not ordinarily go to church will at least attend services on Easter Sunday, making it one of the most crowded (and ostentatiously well-dressed) days for parishes across Canada.
The secular celebration of Easter is so far removed from Christianity that a lot of children grow up unaware the two are even related. In the non-religious version, Easter is a mere celebration of all things spring, including daffodils, bunnies, baby chicks and rolling hills of fresh green grass. Kids celebrate it mostly by getting gifts of special seasonally-themed candies from the “Easter Bunny” — a mythical creature who is basically a spring version of Santa Claus — and by hunting for decorated Easter eggs that “he” has hidden around their house or backyard.
Easter is celebrated on wildly different days in April every year, since its schedule is based on the spring equinox. It should also be noted that in addition to Easter itself, Canada also recognizes the Friday immediately preceding as Good Friday, a statutory holiday that commemorates Christ’s crucifixion.
Victoria Day (official, Monday preceding May 24)
In her final days, Britain’s Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was at the centre of quite an extensive personality cult in both England and the Empire, and her death in 1901 prompted the Canadian Parliament to declare the late sovereign’s birthday (May 24) a national holiday. One hundred years later, Victoria Day still survives, though it has been retroactively redefined as the observed celebration of the “current monarch’s birthday,” despite the fact that the actual birthday of the current monarch, Elizabeth II (b. 1926), is in April.
Regardless of its royal origins, in modern Canada Victoria Day is typically viewed as little more than a convenient long weekend, and an excuse for short spring vacations and camping trips. In 1952, the Government of Canada abandoned the pretence of even keeping the holiday on a consistent day, and simply declared that it would always be celebrated the Monday closest to the 24th, in order to guarantee it would always create a three-day weekend. Canadians sometimes refer to this as the “2-4 long weekend,” in reference to the fact that the numbers in Vicky’s birthdate conveniently describe the amount of cans in a large flat of beer.
Canada Day (official, July 1)
The anniversary of July 1, 1867, the day Canada became a country, Canada Day (known as “Dominion Day” until 1983) is the official birthday of the Canadian nation. Held in early summer, it offers a rare opportunity for Canadians to have large parties outdoors, and is usually celebrated with neighbourhood or family barbecues, picnics and fireworks. Many big cities organize a whole host of official Canada Day festivities as well, including parades and outdoor festivals, ensuring the streets are packed with revelers from sunup to sundown.
Labour Day (official, first Monday in September)
In the late 19th century, when Canadian workers were not always being afforded full rights and dignity from their employers (to put it mildly), the Canadian Parliament created a new holiday specifically to acknowledge the contribution of the nation’s labourers. The date, which originated in the United States, has long been rumoured to have been chosen in order to distract attention away from May Day (May 1), which at the time was an important symbolic day for union radicals, communists and other undesirables the government wasn’t keen to embolden.
Thanksgiving (official, second Monday in October)
Thanksgiving is a uniquely North American holiday, celebrated in the United States and Canada to commemorate the traditional autumn harvest, and give thanks for the wealth and bounty of the New World.
The main event of Thanksgiving is an enormous, lavish dinner, traditionally composed of the iconic foods of North America, including turkey, sweet potatoes, corn, Brussels sprouts, cranberries and pumpkin pie. Since Canada’s farming season ends earlier due to the country’s cold climate, Canadian Thanksgiving is held several weeks before American Thanksgiving, which does not occur until late November.
Next to Christmas, Thanksgiving is the most important family day of the year for most Canadians, and many will travel great distances in order to dine with their relatives.
Halloween (unofficial, October 31)
A good example of a “holiday on the rise,” Canadian Halloween celebrations have continued to get bigger and bigger every year, to the point where it’s now the country’s second-biggest holiday after Christmas, in terms of consumer spending and public participation.
Evolving from vague Irish and pagan traditions in the early 19th century, Halloween is a day to celebrate all things scary and ghoulish. The main event is trick-or-treating, where children dress up in costumes and walk from door to door in their neighbourhoods all night, and are given small candies by adults. In recent years, it’s also become very popular for teenagers to celebrate the day by setting off fireworks and firecrackers (often of dubious legality), and for adults to host late-night costume parties of their own.
In the lead-up to Halloween, spooky decorations of pumpkins, skeletons, witches and other tropes will begin to pop up everywhere, particularly in schools, department stores and bars. On the day itself, it’s becoming more and more common for people of all walks of life to don costumes the whole day long — costumed bus drivers, waiters and bank tellers are hardly an unusual sight.
Remembrance Day (official, November 11)
On November 11, 1918, World War I formally came to a close with when a ceasefire was declared between the combatting powers. On every November 11 since, Canadians have celebrated peace and remembered the horrors of war by observing Remembrance Day, the most sombre holiday of the year.
At 11 o’clock, all Canadians are expected to stop what they’re doing and observe a moment of silence in memory of the soldiers who have given their lives in the various wars in which Canada has fought. Most cities will hold a special public ceremony at the town hall or local war memorial as well, at which representatives of various groups, such as the veterans’ legion, the Boy Scouts, and the municipal, provincial and federal governments will quietly lay wreaths of commemoration.
Remembrance Day’s most visible tradition of all, however, is the distribution of small, plastic poppy pins, which many Canadians will wear on their jackets for the first 11 days of the month. Distributed as a fundraising effort by the Royal Canadian Legion Society, the pins are meant to evoke a famous Canadian poem about the suffering of war, written by Lt. Colonel John McCrae (1872-1918) entitled In Flanders’ Fields. Canadian schoolchildren will usually memorize the entirety of it during some part of their elementary school education.