The Sound of Silence: My Musical Mode for Victoria Day

May 24, 2016Cantor Aviva Marer

The relationship between music and time has always played an integral role in my life. As a cantor, I chant particular nusachaot (traditional musical modes) to alert the community to specific times in the calendar. The melodies tell my congregation not only the time of year, but also the time of day. For example, the nusach of this niggun (wordless melody) foreshadows the High Holidays just as the chromatic, haunting tones of Kol Nidre usher in Yom Kippur.

People often approach me after services and mention how much they enjoyed a specific melody because it was the one they sang growing up. Hearing it instantly transports them back in time, ushering in Shabbat in a poignant and emotional way. We understand the intricate relationship between sound and time, and often our memories play a role in the relationship between the two.

The same can be said about sound in general. As a Canadian, whenever I hear the unmistakable sound of hail, I immediately think of my childhood in Edmonton, Alberta, The sound of a crackling fire, too, reminds me of the cold nights I spent at home – beside a toasty fireplace. But perhaps the most wonderful sound of all, at least to my Canadian ears, is the sound of silence.      

In silence, we can hear sounds Canadians wait for all year: a bird chirping in the distance, a gentle wave from a calm lake, the rustling of nature behind you. These are the perfect sounds of summer. Though our country is known for its bitter winters that last far too long, summertime in the “True North Strong and Free” is one of its best kept secrets! From “cottaging” on the lake to chilling out on a patio, Canadians enjoy every last drop of summer sunshine, starting on the Monday immediately before May 25th, when we celebrate Victoria Day, a federal public holiday in honour of Queen Victoria. 

So who was Queen Victoria, what does she have to do with silence, and how is it that a case of beer has become, among some Canadians, part of the holiday that honours her? 

In 1841, the parliaments of Upper and Lower Canada became a single legislative assembly for the entire Province of Canada. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia:

The new assembly sought opportunities to create common ground between English and French Canadians that would transcend religious and cultural differences. A public holiday honouring the young Queen Victoria’s birthday, 24 May, was an idea that appealed to both English and French Canadians. At the time, loyalty to the Crown was a key cultural trait that distinguished Canadians from Americans and the monarch (the king or queen) was considered a guarantor of minority rights in the united province. In 1845, the legislative assembly of the Province of Canada declared the Queen’s birthday an official public holiday, transforming the monarch’s birthday from an exclusively military occasion to a civilian holiday.

By 1867, Victoria Day was catching on all across the country as new provinces joined the Confederation. Though she died in 1901, Queen Victoria continued to be honoured as the “Mother of Confederation” and an advocate of Canadian self-government. Today, the holiday is distinctly Canadian, and as such, everyone celebrates it differently. In 2003, the province of Quebec renamed the holiday National Patriots Day (Journée Nationale des Patriotes) to honour the 1837 rebellion against the British colonial government. And, although the rest of the country celebrates the day as a statutory paid holiday, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador do not.

Victoria Day marks the first long weekend of the summer and over time, it became known as “May Long Weekend” or “May Long.” Many Canadians use this weekend to open up their cottages for the season, inviting family and friends to join them by the water for a couple of quiet days, often spent listening to those long-awaited, summer sounds.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t explain the beer reference. 

You see, a case of beer contains 24 bottles, and is commonly referred to as a “two-four.” It is easy, therefore, to see why many people refer to the weekend as “May two-four.” After all, our crisp, delicious beer is famous – almost as famous as our occasionally dropped “eh” in conversation.  In fact, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Company, beer sales just before Victoria Day weekend spike by as much as 20% in some of the country’s breweries. Yes the weekend is celebrated widely, with or without a Labatt Blue in hand.

Though not much of a beer drinker myself, I do have fond memories of Victoria Day weekends, and miss home every time it rolls around. Sitting quietly by a lake at a friend’s cottage always marked a specific time in my year. Thinking back, it’s as if it’s calling me now with its own nusach: “Hello summer my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.”

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