Last Christmas marked the end of an era.
On that day, Inuk pilot Johnny May got in his plane and flew over Nunavik’s Kuujjuaq for the last ever Kuujjuaq Candy Drop. The holiday tradition, which saw May drop sweets and other presents from his plane to crowds below, came to a close after 54 years.
It’s a permanent end, since the permit May obtained from the Canadian government to do the candy drop can’t be transferred to anyone else. That’s because it’s effectively a license to break the law. The permit allows May to throw items out of his plane while flying technically too close to the crowds below.
While it’s true that May has talked about retirement before, 2019 had a special note of finality. Canadian North Airlines celebrated the occasion with an online #ThelastYVPcandydrop event so community members could share pictures, videos, and stories to help bid a collective farewell.
The Kuujjuaq Candy Drop isn’t a northern secret, though. May’s annual Christmas flight is preserved in documentaries and a picture book, and the tradition earned him a Sovereign’s Medal in April 2019. For the past few Decembers, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa has even hosted its own candy drop, along with educational programming about the northern event.
The North has a long history of Christmas cheer dropping from the sky. May’s candy drop was inspired by a previous tradition, for instance. His father worked for Hudson's Bay Company and used to drop candy from the roof of the building.
But how did Canadians get in the habit of literally raining Christmas cheer upon northern communities? Well, the answer comes from an old necessity.
Before the rise of Amazon and other transportation options, northern communities were isolated and mostly received southern supplies by plane. In December 1929, at the dawn of a new government-contracted air mail system, the first official Arctic mail delivery made headlines.
By the 1950s and ’60s, commercial and private pilots had long been delivering Christmas mail and other treats. Two pilots—Canadian Airways’ Conway Farrell and Western Canadian Airways’ James Richardson—were even each dubbed “Santa Claus of the North” for their determination to get the mail through. One well-known delivery story took place in Naujaat, as recounted in author Michael Kusugak’s book Baseball Bats for Christmas. In the book, famed pilot Rocky Parsons brings Christmas trees and the community—unsure of what the trees are for (since Christmas was a largely unfamiliar holiday to Inuit at the time)—turns the trees into baseball bats instead.
Author Margery Hinds recounted a similar Arctic tradition in the 1983 book, Christmas In The Big Igloo, when Arctic Bay received a gift from Operation Santa Claus. In 1950, the Canadian military began the tradition of bringing holiday cheer to far-flung troops and remote civilian communities, where Christmas trees and other supplies were fastened to parachutes and dropped from the sky.
“The Arctic Bay drop had been perfect. Everything landed inside the square of lights and every parachute had opened. The few twigs which broke off the wrapped Christmas tree were fixed on with wire.”
Operation Santa Claus discontinued in 1967 when transportation in the Arctic improved. The name and idea was adopted by other agencies, however, like the Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services. It continues to spread cheer to troops worldwide, but its connection with northern communities faded.
So, Nunavik’s beloved bush pilot is far from the first person to drop holiday treats on northern communities. But in Kuujjuaq, it appears he’ll be the last. It’s the end of another tradition in this northern legacy.
But, like the image of Christmas trees dropping from the sky, the Kuujjuaq Candy Drop won’t soon be forgotten.