A Brief History of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Like many American traditions, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began in the hearts and minds of immigrants. In 1924, store employees with European roots asked their employer if they could stage an Old World style holiday procession to honor their new country.

The idea seemed particularly appropriate for Macy’s. Sales were booming, the new Seventh Avenue wing made it “the world’s largest department store,” and its Christmas windows were already a favorite. Why not have a parade that brought customers right to the door at the start of the holiday season?

parade In advance of the event, Macy’s ran full length ads in newspapers promising “a surprise New York will never forget.” The parade that stepped off from 145th Street and Convent Avenue included hundreds of Macy’s employees dressed as clowns, cowboys, knights and sheiks. Joining them were elephants, camels, goats and donkeys from the Central Park Zoo and four bespangled marching bands. Horse-drawn floats delighted children with characters from Mother Goose and Santa on his sleigh was the grand finale, starting a tradition that has been honored ever since.

Bring on the Balloons
The parade’s trademark character balloons first appeared in 1927, when Felix the Cat, the Dragon, the Elephant and the Toy Soldier floated down the towering canyons. The balloons were the creation of Tony Sarg, the designer of Macy’s Christmas windows.

Over the years, many other cartoon figures and cultural icons have had their moment drifting above the crowds. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Spiderman, Superman, Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny, Kermit the Frog, Shrek, the Marx Brothers and Ronald McDonald are just a few of the stars that have delighted crowds. One of the parade’s most popular characters, Snoopy, has had six balloons since his debut in 1968.

In the late 1920s, the parade managers started the custom of releasing the balloons after the parade and awarding a $100 prize to anyone who found a balloon and returned it. During the Depression, when one could buy a stove or washing machine for $30, this was quite a bit of money. The competition to claim the prize was fierce. One year an aviator risked his life to snag one of the Three Little Pigs in mid-air. Another year, East River tugboats racing for the Dachshund balloon inadvertently ripped it to shreds. Fears that someone would be seriously injured ended the custom in 1933.

Lights, Camera, Action!
The parade went national when it was broadcast over the radio in 1932. In 1939, it was one of the first events ever to be televised, though few people had sets. The parade grew steadily in popularity throughout the 1930s, with over a million people turning out to watch. Celebrities were added to the mix. Over the years, viewers have seen stars like Benny Goodman, Harpo Marx, Shirley Temple, Jackie Gleason, Willie Mays and Diana Ross. Since the late 1960s, the Rockettes have sparkled in a spot near the end of the procession, just ahead of Santa Claus. The most recent innovation is the addition of Broadway casts and dance troops who perform along the way and at the terminus in Herald Square.

In all its long history, the only time the parade didn’t step off was during World War II, when materials like gas, tires and rubber for the balloons were given to the war effort instead. After the war, the parade moved its starting point further south, to the Natural History Museum on Central Park West.

Today, more than 3.5 million people line the parade route, and over 50 million viewers watch on television. Eight thousand people participate in the procession, and another 4,000 work behind the scenes on floats, costumes and balloons. The parade is so popular crowds even show up the day before to watch the balloons being inflated outside the museum. The procession is as much a part of Thanksgiving as turkey and football, and Santa’s arrival still signals the magical start of the holiday season.

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