May Day ceremonies in 1978. The May Queen that year was Julie Smyth, a Herbert Spencer student. This photo is from a Herbert Spencer scrapbook (book 2) and is from the New Westminster Public Library collections, accession # 2790.
It’s May, and there is no other month in which I am reminded of “tradition” more than May in New West.
From the Hyack Parade (the Hyack Festival Association volunteers are great at parades), to the May Ball with Royal Lancers Dance (read this wonderfully researched post by Dale Miller at A Sense of History to understand the history of the Lancers), to the explosive and unique Ancient and Honourable Anvil Battery salute on Victoria Day, to the New Westminster Schools (officially no longer School District No. 40) May Day celebrations and activities… there are a lot of things here that are done year after year in May.
I didn’t grow up here (my hometown is really into sandcastles), and so the School District’s May Day celebrations are a bit foreign to me. Friends of mine who grew up here have all sorts of fond nostalgia for May Day. Some of them are past May Queen Suite or Royal Knights but some of them are just students who either watched it or danced in it and almost all of them tell me they love it.
Last year my son was in grade one at the school with the May Queen and Royal Knight, which meant he danced in the celebrations on May Day – grade ones of the school with the May Queen and Royal Knight dance the ‘greeting dance’ to a tune called “Swinging on the Swings”.
My son absolutely loved learning the steps in his gym classes in the weeks leading up to May Day, and learning some of the facts and history. Watching him have an absolute blast on the field changed my opinion about May Day’s maypole dance and also removed some apprehension about it.
Do I think the school May Day activities could be improved? Yes, totally. The whole production took way too long – there was way too much speechifying by Very Important Adults and the kids were forced to shush and sit for way too long. Second, those adorable matching outfits the grade ones wear for a few hours were not only sourced by but also funded by the school’s PAC. That’s money that could have served a greater good at the school, like school equipment or field trips. Additionally, there are very traditional gender divides I really don’t like and go against what I teach my son at home. The young girls wear dresses and are asked to cover their shoulders and not have bare legs. Please.
But my wish list of improvements are simply tweaks. I’m not picking on the district staff and volunteers who put in a lot of effort to try and honour tradition and make it interesting to this generation of kids while also being respectful to budgets – both time and money – of those involved. They work hard and the kids like it, and my kid will keep going so long as it runs.
When does tradition become tradition?
I ask myself this a lot. I don’t really “get” May Day here in New West, even with the positive experience my son had as a dancer last year. But would people really get a sandcastle building competition from my hometown if they hadn’t been obliged to go to it when they grew up? Or how about Nanaimo’s bathtub races?
May Day dates back to 1870 where it was organized by the Hyack Fire Brigade until 1892. Students started voting for their May Queen candidate in 1907, according to local historian and researcher Dale Miller. “We tend to think of it as a New Westminster celebration but it was throughout the British Empire, not just here,” she says.
Given how slow things travelled in the early years of New Westminster, it’s no surprise that the early residents found reasons to bring their traditions with them rather than seek out unfamiliar celebrations.
This Month’s Theme
All this to say, this month on Tenth, we’re exploring themes of tradition.
What we’re doing on Tenth – this mash up of print and digital media – isn’t traditional, and I’ve been both praised and criticized for trying to do it. Why is tradition so revered? Why are we so uncomfortable with going against it? Why are we so in love with tradition?
Get in touch, New West, and talk to me about traditions. What is a tradition? When does something become one? Why and how we should we abandon them?
I hope to uncover other takes on tradition, too. I think about city building with single family residences versus less traditional forms of housing, like row homes and townhouses, and I think about traditional ceremonies, like the May Day school ceremonies. I hope to present content that shows off what you think of tradition, and to explore what tradition means to you.