Monthly Theme: Tradition

A black and white photo depicting children dancing the maypole dance in New Westminster in 1978

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. Continue reading “Monthly Theme: Tradition”

Meet J.J. Johnston: New Westminster’s ‘Mr. May Day’

The crowning of May Queen Elsie Hogg in 1925 by the 1924 May Queen Ester Elofson. Mr. May Day J.J. Johnston is the man standing to the left of her and the Master of Ceremonies that year, J.J. Cambridge is to her right
The crowning of May Queen Elsie Hogg in 1925 by the 1924 May Queen Ester Elofson. Mr. May Day J.J. Johnston is the man standing to the left of her and the Master of Ceremonies that year, J.J. Cambridge is to her right

New Westminster is a proud and busy place this week. As the Hyack Festival proudly begins its 40th year of celebrating the city, children around the city are busy practicing how to folk dance and dance together around May Poles to celebrate May Day on May 25th. Ambassadors are preparing, volunteers are working hard and everyone in the city is looking forward to the wonderful celebrations. As parents and grandparents watch their children and smile, memories are rich within their minds. For some of the older people in the city, a name and face who embodied those celebrations for almost 100 years might come to mind. “Mr. May Day”, J.J. Johnston is proudly remembered as a symbol of the events and celebration of youth in New Westminster.

The first May Day took place in Sapperton in 1870. A celebration organized by the Hyack Engine Company , it was to appreciate the children of the city and celebrate how those young citizens could proudly use their energy to help the young city grow and mature along with those children. William and Elizabeth Johnston helped organize and attended that first May Day. With them was their newly born son, John Joseph. Soon to be known as J.J., throughout his life their son embodied the birth, growth and pride of New Westminster that May Day came to represent. Through his 96 years in New Westminster, J.J. Johnston attended every May Day celebration, was actively involved in many of them. So much so, to the people of our city he became known as “Mr. May Day”.

J.J. Johnston proudly attending May Day in 1965 at aged 95. A severe illness kept him from the 1966 May Day, but he was brought things to celebrate and died within that week
J.J. Johnston proudly attending May Day in 1965 at aged 95. A severe illness kept him from the 1966 May Day, but he was brought things to celebrate and died within that week

As he grew up, J.J. Johnston was vibrantly involved in the city along with his parents, 8 siblings and extended family. He met and helped people around New Westminster, worked throughout the city in his youth and by 1906 he started an Insurance and Real Estate company that he kept involved with until he was in his 90s. In 1907 Mr. Johnston was elected to council and he served as Mayor from 1920 to 1923. During that time he became an active member of the May Day committee each year to organize the celebrated events. Through the years he shared his memories through of the early May Days with many people, helping build an understanding and appreciation of the event. In a 1949 interview with Vic Andrew, Mr. May Day expressed his fondness by stating he “could become a kid for a day”, every year. As the ‘perennial General Chairman’ and Master of Ceremonies alternatively with J.J. Cambridge for many years at May Day, children in New Westminster first came to know him as Mr. May Day. As those children grew up with him being part of the event through their lives, the yearly celebration and the name became synonymous with J.J. Johnston.

Through the years, along with youth, May Day in New Westminster became a celebration of the heritage and pride of people within the city. As J.J. Johnston aged through the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Mr. May Day was saluted and thanked for his contributions to the growth and pride of the city. As Master of Ceremonies in 1950, May Queen Patricia D’Arcy presented a cane to Mr. May Day, from the children of New Westminster in appreciation to his 80 year contribution to all the May Days in the city. In 1955 J.J. Johnston was given the honour of “Freeman of the City of New Westminster” by council for his services and 50 years ago at the 1961 May Day, he was celebrated and thanked by all the children, with his cane to help him stand. After his death in 1966, J.J. Johnson was honoured with a tribute at a special meeting of council on May 21, 1967 and a special memorial to Mr. May Day was built in Queen’s Park that remains today.


A May Day to remember

Readers, we in the creative team behind T2F acknowledge that a huge omission has been committed, for which we are eternally apologetic. What would a New West Blog be in May without a post about our fair May Queene? In the flurry of child-rearing, cold-minding, and baby-growing (and all the stuff the rest of us do), we forgot to make sure that New Westminster‘s biggest event got the coverage it deserved on T2F: May Day.

As the longest-running May Day celebration in the British Commonwealth (which is saying something, because the British invented this rather odd tradition involving young girls in white dresses, children hopping around poles with ribbons, and choreographed dances with old men), most New Westies are very proud of their annual May Day festivities. It is often one of the only times of year the city gets wide media coverage for something positive (instead of skytrain crime and traffic).

You have to be from here to understand, but it truly is one of the only events in the city’s calendar that gathers the whole city to watch. The celebration of Hyack week goes on for seven days, but the biggest moment is the crowning of the Queen of the May, always on the Wednesday after Victoria day.

When I was in school, May Day was one of the biggest events of the year. The runners raced, the popular girls campaigned for the school’s May Queen nomination, and all held their breath to hear of their school won the coveted May Queen spot, or was relegated to the decidedly second place “Honor Queen.”

Though there was much bellyaching in grades three and four about our roles in the May Day festivities – folk dancers and maypole dancers, respectively – I was one of the nerdy ones who wanted to dance the maypole from the day I saw my big brother Will’s class do it. I had two years to pine and wait for the chance to hold a brightly-coloured ribbon in my hand and hop gaily around the tall white poles (along with every other grade four student in New West) as the citizens of New West looked on, and from that point the highlight of May Day for me were the maypole dances.
Maypole Dancers

My grade four year turned out to thwart my maypole aspirations. I spent two months of the winter recuperating from spine surgery, and though I returned to school just as maypole dance practices began during each gym period, I was out again for hip surgery just six weeks later. Spring bloomed in New West under my careful watch from our beautiful house across from Queen’s Park, as I was ensconced in the sunroom and encased in a pink fibreglass bodycast. It was an itchy and boring way to live out those two months, but when May came around I knew I would miss my chance to dance the maypole. It sounds geeky now, but I really, really wanted to do it – and missing out was symbolic of all I was missing stuck inside the house.

I had a visiting schoolteacher had come several times a week throughout my incarceration that year. She was a great lady named Mrs. Sontowski. Hyack week rolled around and somehow Mrs. Sontowski found out about my disappointed maypole aspirations. When May Day dawned with the sound of the anvil just across the street, and I could hear my classmates walking to the Stadium for the big event, Mrs. Sontowski came that day bearing a big old hatbox and a small package.

From my perch in the sunroom, it was a beautiful day, and that hatbox made it even better. That day she opened the hatbox and pulled out her beautiful flowered May Queen crown, and the corsage and pin that every May Queen is given. Mrs. Sontowski, formerly Sandra Jackson, New Westminster’s May Queen 1954, stood in my sunroom and told me about the day she was crowned, how she wore a beautiful dress, danced with a smelly city Alderman, and gave a speech to the whole town. I tried on her crown and put on her pin and corsage and wore them for the rest of my lesson that day. It was better than the maypole – that day I got to be May Queen.

I found this on Quest for the Queens – a website collection of videos, info and photos of New Westminster’s May Queens over the years. See Also:
New West Heritage Page: May Queens
New West Heritage Photo Tour: May Queens
New Westminster’s 140th May Queen Suite

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