Party like it's 1867: Canada Day activities and games

Grab your bonnets and a bag of lemons, because we’re going back in time to party.

Party like it's 1867: Canada Day activities and games

Photo: Sun Ngo

In years past, your Canada Day probably included sunburns, limp hot dogs and tears over the maple leaf tattoo that rubbed off. But this year, things will be different. You’re going to ditch that backyard barbecue and the maple-leaf accessories and celebrate like it’s 1867. Given that 2017 marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of Canadian Confederation (that’s a fancy way of saying that the official nation of Canada is 150 years old) you need to take a trip back in time.

Life for kids in the 1860s was very different than it is now—school wasn’t mandatory, there were no video games and everything you ate, you made from scratch. You could tell your kids about life in the 19th century and maybe show them a few photos. Or you could grab some suspenders and a bonnet, and pretend you are citizens of British America.

Now, there was a lot of work to do back then (someone had to milk the cow and knit that shawl!), but when they partied, they partied hard. “There was lots of food and lots of fire,” says Heather Tichenor, Historic Programs Coordinator at Black Creek Pioneer Village in North York, Ont. On Confederation Day, the whole town came out for the parade, free ice cream and massive band concert. So, you better get ready to do the jig! From churning the cream to playing a few rounds of croqinol, here are some tried and true ways to really have a memorable day.

1. Play ball Outdoor activities, especially ball games, were trendy with kids in the 1860s. Hockey was still in its infancy; cricket was the national sport, explains Tichenor. If you don’t have a cricket bat in the garage, you could play a couple innings of baseball on Canada Day, instead. Don’t worry, wearing knickerbockers is optional. Baseball was still fairly new at the time—in fact they didn’t even use gloves, and caught the ball with their bare hands. (Maybe don’t do that!) Another favourite pastime was croquet, which kids would set up on the lawn.

A little boy dressed as a pioneer with his hands in a bowl Photo: Sun Ngo

2. Go on a picnic “Picnics were huge at this time. Families would pack up their lunch and go somewhere pleasant,” says Lisa Hunter, the program coordinator at Westfield Heritage Village, in Rockton, Ont. You wouldn’t have lived close to your neighbours, so on special occasions everyone from the town would come together to eat and catch up—they would share farming tips and ask for help if needed. Tupperware didn’t exist back then (sorry!), so you will need to find mason jars or bowls with dishcloths overtop to transport your food.

What food should you pack? The diet in the newly minted provinces was very English—which meant lots of meat and potatoes. Baking homemade bread (whole wheat, of course) was a daily task that the kids helped with. (Get ready to knead, kids.) Be sure to pack a few sandwiches, filled with chicken and eggs as most people had a few chickens on their farm. In your picnic basket, you should add some seasonal fruits and veggies like strawberries or corn, because people tended to eat whatever food they had just harvested.

3. Break out the board games Don’t panic if your Canada Day celebration gets rained out because there were many indoor games back in the 1860s, explains Hunter. So, put away the electronics and break out the cards, checkers, wooden tops and other small parlour games (or what we call board games nowadays). Croqinol, a shuffleboard game played on a circular table, was actually invented in Ontario. Brain twisters were also all the rage in the 19th century, says Pauline MacLean, the collections manager at Highland Village Museum in Iona, NS. Here’s a fun one: It is not inside. It is not outside, and a house cannot exist without it. Answer: A door (or a dorus as the Gaels out east would call it).


4. Practise line dancing There won’t be any “JuJu on the Beat” at this party! Community dances were a lively affair in the 19th century, with someone playing a fiddle or piano that everyone would clap, skip and dance along to, says Tichenor. Instead of whipping and nae-naeing, kids would waltz or do line dancing (think the dancing you see in Jane Austen movie adaptations, not the “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” variety). Back then people would buy dance manuals to learn the steps, but you and the kids can turn to YouTube to learn some classic moves.

Apple juice containers wrapped in floral fabric Photo: Sun Ngo

5. Make lemonade Since so many Canadians came over from England, the diet had a heavy Victorian influence. And the Victorians loved their sweets, so prepare to indulge on Canada Day. “Lemon was the fashionable flavour of the 1860s,” says Tichenor from Black Creek Pioneer Village. Try making lemon cake, lemon cookies and, of course, lemonade. The tart drink was a favourite at picnics and would be transferred in a big glass jar.

A little boy smiling while putting on a straw hat Photo: Sun Ngo

6. Put on your bonnet “Kids were mini adults,” says Hunter of kids’ clothing in the 19th century. “Their clothing is really a reflection of men and women’s clothing, but on a smaller scale.” Your kids probably won’t want to wear the hottest fashions from 1867 because they were quite cumbersome. Girls wore a chemise, then a petticoat and finally a dress (add in a corset if you were a teenager).  Boys also wore many layers: pants, collared button downs, a vest and possibly a jacket if it was cool out.


The must-have accessory that kids today can totally rock is hats. Everyone had to wear a hat if they went outside and bonnets and straw hats were the fashionable styles of the time. You can take your kid to the local craft store so they can deck their hat out in ribbons and fake flowers. Boys should also put on a pair of suspenders. Belts weren’t fashionable until the 1920s; boys and men wore suspenders instead to keep their trousers up.

7. Churn ice cream Everyone was screaming for ice cream back in the 1860s. Enjoying a scoop was a popular way to celebrate Confederation Day. Unfortunately, chocolate wasn’t widely available yet, but people liked to flavour ice cream with vanilla, chopped-up cookies and fruit. Now, you can’t just head out to the local ice cream parlour for your frozen treat—you have to churn it just like they did in the olden days. “For a lot of things in the 1860s, you had to do the work and then you get to enjoy,” says Tichenor. Don’t worry, watch the video below for an easy recipe.

8. Race away A lot of activities from the 1860s are games kids still play today, explains Tichenor. For example, kids of all generations love a good race. You can use garbage bags or pillow cases for sack races and you just need string or rope for three-legged races. Kids will get a real kick out of egg and spoon races. (Boil the eggs to minimize the mess.)

9. Fire it up Communities often held lively concerts where there was lots of dancing and singing, says Tichenor. For big holidays, like Confederation Day, there would be parades and artillery salutes during the day and then bonfires and fireworks at night. We don’t advise you do your own military salute, but you can enjoy an evening bonfire and some sparklers. To top off your time-travelling day, let the kids enjoy s’mores. (Technically the marshmallow treat didn’t exist back in the 1860s, but we won’t tell anyone if you don’t.)


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