Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: A History
In many ways New York City invented the Christmas season as we celebrate it here in the United States. From NYC artists creating our version of Santa Claus to the commercialization of shopping for presents to massive trees erected in town squares, New York deserves the credit for cementing the Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year’s Eve season.
One of the biggest activities enjoyed in cities and towns across the country are Thanksgiving parades to launch the holiday season. In this too we must thank New York City. Without any doubt or debate, the most famous parade of any parade is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade held annually for nearly 100 years in New York City. Thanksgiving Day and parades now going hand-in-hand, but would you be surprised to learn that NYC was not the first Thanksgiving Day parade? Read on!
The first store-sponsored Thanksgiving parade originated in Philadelphia with the Gimbel Brothers Department Store in 1920. That first Thanksgiving parade in the US of any significant consequence had a procession comprised of 50 people, 15 cars, and a fireman dressed as Santa Claus to usher in the Christmas shopping season. To this day, Philadelphia continues to host this Thanksgiving Day Parade, the name and sponsors changing over time. Gimbels Department Store sponsored until they sadly closed their doors in 1986. At 102 years running, the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade is the oldest parade in the United States, not even suspended during WWI or WWII. Respect!
Inspired, most likely, by Philadelphia, in 1924 a department story in Detroit hosted a Thanksgiving Day Parade. Unfortunately for Detroit, and I suppose Philadelphia too from a certain point of view, that same year Macy’s Department Store in New York City decided to enter the parade business. Hosted by Macy’s under the leadership of president Herbert Strauss and organized by Macy’s employees, the parade was offered as a holiday treat for the children of New York. Escorted by New York police, the 6-mile long parade marched down Broadway and featured animals from the Central Park Zoo, floats with a Mother Goose theme, Macy’s employees dressed in costumes, and Santa Claus as a finale. An estimated 10,000 people viewed the parade, Mr. Macy announcing the next day that a parade would be staged the following year.
A tradition had begun. In 1927 the live animals were replaced with balloons, the initiation of another tradition. Tony Sarg, a children’s book illustrator and puppeteer, designed the first giant hot air balloons. Made by Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Ohio, helium-filled Felix the Cat was the first to make his balloon debut.
Celebrities as an element of the parade began in 1934 with singer Eddie Cantor.
In 1939 the parade was broadcast locally and this was the last year the floats were pulled by horse. In 1940 the estimated in-person spectator count reached one million. During WWII from 1942 to 1944 the parade was suspended for obvious reasons but also because both helium and rubber were needed for the war effort, creating a shortage. The parade returned in 1945 with an estimated 2 million in attendance.
Footage from the 1946 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was used in Miracle on 34th Street. In fact, portions of the movie were filmed while the parade occurred. Actor Edmund Gwenn played Santa Claus for the parade, a fact no one knew until the movie was released in 1947. The massive success of the movie captured the attention of the entire nation, increasing awareness of the Macy’s parade. In 1948 the parade was televised nationally for the first time, on CBS, and since 1952 it has aired live on NBC.
In 1963 the scheduled date for the parade was six days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Macy’s executives debated canceling but decided to proceed with the parade, hoping it would raise the American spirit.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been a leader in many areas of innovation, particularly with the massive balloons. At the same time, since the mid-1950s, little has changed in the overall features and agenda. Wisely sticking with a winning method, Macy’s has retained a combination of floats, balloons, performers and celebrities, marching bands, and Santa Claus. All the elements of a perfect holiday and American themed parade.
Also of note is the extensive involvement of New York area volunteers and the emphasis on New York culture, such as featuring current Broadway musicals, and local high schools and colleges. A parade for the American people — on average watched on TV by 24 million people — the pride and love for NYC is never forgotten.
The boisterous event is a massive production that requires 18 months of planning. The 2022 parade will feature 16 giant character balloons, 28 floats, 40 novelty and heritage inflatables, more than 700 clowns, 12 marching bands, 10 performance groups, a host of musical stars, and of course, Santa Claus.
The big balloons debuted in 1927 at the fourth Macy’s parade, as noted above. A fun fact is that the inspiration for the huge balloons was a balloon covered float in the 1926 parade. That float was decked out in traditional, birthday party type balloons and was named “Balloonatics”. The popularity of the gigantic balloons resulted in a need for teams of people to design and create them, the folks taking their name from that original float and to embrace being “lunatics for balloons.”
Each balloon takes up to a year to create, not counting time to design it. The Macy’s Balloonatics today work at the Macy’s Parade Studio in Hoboken, the process including computer graphics and clay models before fabricating the final product. Once finished, each balloon undergoes weeks of testing to ensure they are parade ready. Essential to the planning is how the upwards to 400 pound balloons will be packed and transported to the parade staging site. Then there is the training and practice with teams of volunteer “Balloon Pilots” and handlers — on average 60 per balloon — who will drive the anchor cars and walk the entire parade. After 90 years and with modern technology, the process is streamlined and most of the kinks have been ironed out, but it is still a massive undertaking with devastating consequences if not taken seriously every step of the way.
Macy’s Parade Balloon Fun Facts:
- The debut balloons in 1927 included Felix the Cat, a 25-foot Dachshund, flocks of “gigantic turkeys and chickens and ducks of heroic size,” and a 60-foot-long dinosaur pulled by cavemen.
- In 1928 the balloons were released into the air as a finale fanfare. Much to everyone’s surprise, they all immediately burst! The following year they were redesigned to include a safety valve that allowed them to float on for days. Each one also included an address, so whoever found the deflated balloons could mail them back to the store for a free gift. After 1932, when an airplane pilot tried to snag a floating balloon and almost crashed, Macy’s stopped releasing them into the air.
- Mickey Mouse debuted in 1934, the balloon designed by Walt Disney himself.
- Snoopy has appeared as a giant balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade more times than any other character in history. He debuted in 1968 as Flying Ace Snoopy.
- Macy’s is the second largest consumer of helium in the US, after the government itself.