As It Happens

After decades of dropping candy from the sky, this Inuk pilot is taking Christmas off

The jolly man who flies through the sky dropping presents to excited children is taking a break this Dec. 25. No, it's not Santa Claus: it's 76-year-old bush pilot Johnny May.

Johnny May plans to spend holidays with family, but the candy drop will continue — with pickup trucks

Bush pilot Johnny May, seen here in his airplane with Santa Claus in 2019, has for decades dropped Christmas gifts to people on the ground in Kuujjuaq, northern Quebec. (Submitted by Isabelle Dubois)

Story Transcript

The jolly man who flies through the sky dropping presents to excited children is taking a break this Christmas Day. 

No, it's not Santa Claus: it's 76-year-old bush pilot Johnny May, much to the dismay of his community. 

"You know when you're at a concert and you have a good band, people start yelling one more, one more? Same thing," May, who also happens to be the brother of Governor General Mary Simon, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"Almost daily I go to the local stores and someone will ask me, 'Are you doing a candy drop this year?' So yeah, people are curious whether I'll be continuing, but unfortunately I won't."

Every year for the past 55 years — except 2020 — the Inuk pilot has flown over Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec, dropping everything from candy, toys and warm clothes to coupons for TVs, chainsaws and fridges — although those are delivered in the form of a certificate in an envelope. 

His annual Christmas flights were so iconic they're celebrated in The Kuujjuaq Christmas Candy Drop, a children's book by the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, which was also adapted into a CBC animated film. The book is available in both English/Inuktitut and French/Inuktitut.  

May's decision to retire the tradition was first reported in Maclean's.

May drops gifts from his plane to a crowd of people ground below. (Submitted by Isabelle Dubois)

'I will miss it'

This year, May will be spending Christmas at home with his family. He says he made the decision for several reasons: the pandemic, his airplane is under repair, and he decided a couple of years ago that it was time to spend Christmas on the ground. 

He says he has "mixed emotions" about the decision, but one thing he's looking forward to is not waking up early to check the weather. 

"I will miss it. Absolutely," he said. "I have many grandchildren. It'll be a good time to be together with family and not worry about the weather." 

This year will also be extra special because his sister will be delivering the Christmas address to the nation in her new role as Governor General.

"That's quite something," May said.

May and his wife Louise Berthe May, returning from their annual char fishing trip in Ikirtuujaq. (Submitted by Jeannie May)

May says he got the idea for the gift drop from his childhood. His father was the manager at the Hudson Bay post in Kuujjuaq, and every winter they would toss hard candy from the roof to Inuit who had come to the post from their camps on the land. 

When May got his pilot's licence, he decided to continue that tradition. He would load up his plane with presents and his "helper elves" and take to the sky as a crowd gathered on the ground. 

"When I'm over the drop zone, I yell back to them to drop. Usually at the end of our 45-minute [to] one-hour flight, my voice is hoarse from yelling too much," he said. 

Almost ruined by bureaucrats

For decades the operation went smoothly, until government bureaucrats got involved. 

"I had been doing it for years and years and years until the iPhone came out, and I guess people were posting online. And from what I hear a Transport Canada inspector saw it on YouTube," May said. 

An inspector told him he was breaking two rules: flying much lower than the minimum 1,000 feet and throwing goods out of an airplane. May was told he could face a fine of up to $1,000. 

May made a call to then-mayor Larry Watt, who told Transport Canada to send the fine to him and he would be happy to pay. The inspector, not wanting to be a grinch, proposed a compromise. Now, May is allowed to fly as low as 60 metres from the ground, and he tries to drop the presents to the side of the crowd instead of directly on top of them.

Even though May won't be the flying this year, that doesn't mean the candy drop is cancelled.  

Last year, when the drop was cancelled because of the pandemic, May says his elves suggested that he do a candy drop from his 1973 Ford pickup truck. It took three or four trucks driving through the town to deliver all the goods. 

"You know, I really enjoyed that. So I think this year we'll probably do the same thing."


Written by Sarah Jackson with files from CBC News. Produced by Kate Cornick.

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