Sure, the malls have been decked with Christmas decor for weeks already but for most people, the holiday season doesn’t officially start until Manhattan is swarmed by giant helium balloons and Santa Claus rides down Sixth Avenue.
Of course, we’re talking about the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
Every year more than 3.5 million New Yorkers line the route of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while 50 million television viewers tune in to watch the holiday pageant of giant character balloons, floats, celebrities and marching bands.
Although it is now as much of an American tradition as turkey and stuffing, the first Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving morning of 1924 was a much more humble affair that bore the name of an altogether different holiday.
This year the parade turns 91 and the 2017 lineup will feature 17 giant character balloon; 28 legacy balloons, balloonicles, balloonheads and trycaloons; 26 floats; 1,100 cheerleaders and dancers; more than 1,000 clowns; 12 marching bands; and 6 performance groups.
Four new balloons will enter the parade this year: Olaf from Disney’s Frozen, Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, Jett from Super Wings and PAW Patrol. The parade will also pay tribute to the classic holiday movie Miracle on 34th Street with a Harold the baseball player balloon, which has been recreated for this year’s Parade and painted in hues of black, white and grey to look exactly as it did on-screen during a memorable scene in the black-and-white 1947 film.
Sabrina Carpenter, 98 Degrees, Lauren Alaina, Cam, Andra Day & Common, Sara Evans, Jimmy Fallon & The Roots, Flo Rida, Goo Goo Dolls, Kat Graham, Andy Grammer, Angelica Hale, Olivia Holt, Nicky Jam, Wyclef Jean, Bravo’s Top Chef stars Padma Lakshmi & Tom Colicchio, Dustin Lynch, Miss America 2018 Cara Mund, Leslie Odom Jr. and the cast and characters of Sesame Street, Bebe Rexha, Smokey Robinson, Jojo Siwa and more will all lend their talents to this year’s proceedings.
As the United States prospered during the Roaring Twenties, so did New York City’s iconic department store—Macy’s.
After going public in 1922, R. H. Macy & Co. started to acquire competitors and open regional locations. Macy’s flagship store in Manhattan’s Herald Square did such a brisk business that it expanded in 1924 to cover an entire city block stretching from Broadway to Seventh Avenue along 34th Street.
To showcase the opening of the “World’s Largest Store” and its 1 million square feet of retail space at the start of the busy holiday shopping season, Macy’s decided to throw New York a parade on Thanksgiving morning. In spite of its timing, the parade was not actually about Thanksgiving at all but the next major holiday on the calendar—Christmas.
Macy’s hoped its “Christmas Parade” would whet the appetites of consumers for a holiday shopping feast.
The idea of a store-sponsored Thanksgiving parade did not originate with Macy’s, however, but with Philadelphia’s Gimbel Brothers Department Store, which first staged a Thanksgiving procession in 1920 with 50 people, 15 cars and a fireman dressed as Santa Claus who ushered in the Christmas shopping season.
Like Macy’s, J.L. Hudson’s Department Store in Detroit also planned a similar event in 1924. In New York, however, the only Thanksgiving parade that had previously passed through the city’s streets was its peculiar—and to many, annoying—tradition of children painting their faces and donning tattered clothes to masquerade as “ragamuffins” who asked “Anything for Thanksgiving?” as they begged door-to-door for pennies, apples and pieces of candy.
At 9 a.m. on the sunlit morning of November 27, 1924, Macy’s gave the children of New York a particularly special Thanksgiving treat as a police escort led the start of the parade from the intersection of 145th Street and Convent Avenue.
The early-morning start time of “Macy’s Christmas Parade” overlapped with many church services, but it gave spectators plenty of time to make it to the afternoon’s big football game between Syracuse and Columbia universities at the Polo Grounds.
Macy’s had promised parade-goers “a marathon of mirth” in its full-page newspaper advertisements. While the parade route may not have extended over 26 miles, its 6-mile length certainly made for a long hike for those marching from Harlem to Herald Square.
The spectators who stood four and five people deep, however, could watch it all in just a matter of minutes since the modest street pageant stretched the length of only two city blocks.
To match the nursery-rhyme theme in Macy’s Christmas window display in 1924, floats featured Mother Goose favorites such as the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Little Miss Muffet and Little Red Riding Hood. Macy’s employees dressed as clowns, cowboys and sword-wielding knights.
A menagerie of animals on loan from the Central Park Zoo—including bears, elephants, camels and monkeys—offered a circus-like atmosphere as four bands provided the soundtrack to the festive march.
Bringing up the rear of the parade was a float bearing the guest of honor—Santa Claus—sitting in his reindeer-driven sleigh on top of a mountain of ice.
By noontime, the parade finally arrived at its end in front of Macy’s Herald Square store where 10,000 people cheered Santa as he descended from his sleigh. After being crowned “King of the Kiddies,” Kris Kringle scaled a ladder and sat on a gold throne mounted on top of the marquee above the store’s new 34th Street entrance near Seventh Avenue.
With a bellow from his trumpet, Santa sounded the signal to unveil “The Fair Frolics of Wondertown,” the Christmastime window display designed by artist and puppeteer Tony Sarg. As soon as the police lowered their crowd-control lines, children rushed to the 75-foot-long window to see the miniature Mother Goose marionette characters on moving belts frolicking in their own parade in front of a castle-like façade.
Although the parade garnered only two sentences the following day in the New York Herald—the same amount of ink given to the charity dinner and screening of the “The Ten Commandments” for the prisoners at the Sing Sing correctional facility—it proved such a smash that Macy’s announced in a newspaper advertisement the following morning that it would stage the parade again the following Thanksgiving. “We did not dare dream its success would be so great,” stated the advertisement.
Macy’s Christmas Parade quickly became a New York holiday tradition to the joy of nearly all except the zoo animals, who did not revel in the six-mile journey, and the marchers treading carefully in their wake.
The roars and growls from the tired animals frightened young spectators, so they were replaced by less-surly and more-obedient character balloons, which quickly became the parade’s signature attractions after the debut of a helium-filled Felix the Cat, designed by Sarg, in 1927.
While the route has been scaled back to a length of two-and-a-half miles, the size of the parade itself has blossomed with dozens of balloons, marching bands, celebrities and cheerleaders.
Here are 14 fun, surprising and strange facts about the parade. (File these in your head just in case you need to fill any awkward moments at the dinner table this Thanksgiving.)
Say what? It was originally a ‘Christmas Parade’
When the first parade was held on Thanksgiving Day in 1924, it was called the “Macy’s Christmas Parade.” The event was organized by a small group of Macy’s employees, who, dressed in costumes, marched from 145th Street and Convent Avenue to the company’s Herald Square flagship, along with a mix of entertainers, floats and — of course — Santa Claus.
The first parade was very circus-like
Wait, where are the bearded ladies and clowns in a car? The original parade in 1924 included a menagerie of circus mainstays, including monkeys, bears, camels and elephants, all borrowed from the Central Park Zoo.
But it wasn’t long before the live animals were replaced
Come 1927, the live animals were out and they were replaced by inflatable critters. This was the year that the parade’s signature giant helium balloons made their debut, with Felix the Cat leading the way. He was joined by a flying dragon, elephant and toy soldier.
The balloons used to be released into the air — on purpose!
If Snoopy or another one of the parade’s giant helium balloons float away today, someone’s going to get fired. OK, maybe just given a talking-to. But in the past, organizers would intentionally release the enormous inflatable characters into the sky after the parade, instead of deflating them. At first, the balloons would pop quickly, but, starting in 1929, safety valves were added so the helium could slowly seep out, allowing them to float for a few days. The balloons were also tagged with return address labels, so when they finally did land, they could be sent back to Macy’s, which would reward its finders with gifts, including $100 checks. This practice was discontinued after a balloon released following the 1932 parade “wrapped itself around a passing airplane’s wing, sending it into a tailspin,” according to TIME magazine. The mid-air collision, which happened over Jamaica, Queens, luckily didn’t result in any fatalities — the pilot landed safely at Roosevelt Field.
Santa hasn’t always been the show-stopping finale
Santa Claus has been the finale of the parade every year except for 1933. That year, organizers decided to have St. Nick kick off the parade.
The truth about the parade’s cameo in ‘Miracle on 34th Street’
The parade scenes in the 1947 holiday classic “Miracle on 34th Street” are actual shots of the 1946 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. After careful preparation, the film’s producers set up cameras along the parade route. They were mindful that they wouldn’t have the ability to shoot retakes since it was a live event. And, unbeknownst to most spectators, the Santa Claus riding in the parade that year was actor Edmund Gwenn, who played Santa Claus in the film.
The parade’s balloons were donated to the war effort in the 1940s
The parade went on a three-year hiatus when the U.S. entered World War II, prompted by the subsequent rubber and helium shortages. The 1942, 1943 and 1944 parades were canceled and the balloons were donated to the U.S. government, providing 650 pounds of scrap rubber for the war effort.
It’s not only cats that have multiple lives — so does Snoopy
There’s been “Flying Ace Snoopy,” “Astronaut Snoopy” and even “Millennium Snoopy.” Since 1968, there have been seven different Snoopy balloons, the most for any one character. Needless to say, Snoopy is the top dog.
The first ‘human’ balloon debuted 83 years ago
Entertainer Eddie Cantor — familiar to Broadway, radio, movie and early TV audiences — became the first human to be turned into a Macy’s parade balloon in 1934.
Popeye once had a wardrobe malfunction — sort of
Spectators at the 1957 parade got an unexpected surprise as Popeye passed by. Rain water from a sudden downpour collected inside his hat, and, as the balloon tipped forward, it dumped gallons of water onto those nearby.
Those massive floats must fit into a box — no joke
Throughout the years, floats in the parade have become more elaborate and increased in size — up to 40 feet tall and 28 feet wide — but one thing remains the same. The floats must be capable of being folded into a 12-foot-by-8-foot box so they can be transported from the Macy’s Parade Studio in New Jersey to Manhattan by way of the Lincoln Tunnel.
Parade artists speak their own language
What’s a “falloon”? What about a “balloonicle”? Go ahead and ask one of the artists who work in the Macy’s Parade Studio. A “falloon” is the name given to a float that incorporates a cold air balloon. This hybrid was introduced in the 1980s. A “balloonicle” refers to a cold air balloon combined with a self-propelling vehicle, akin to the Weebles — the children’s roly-poly toy — that debuted in 2004. Those should not be confused with the parade’s other innovation, “trycaloons” (pictured), which are part-balloon, part-tricycle.
The parade route used to be twice as long
While the parade’s balloons, floats, participants and spectators continue to grow each year, the route itself has been substantially downsized. When the first parade was held in 1924, the route stretched nearly 6 miles. But in 1946, the starting point was moved to Central Park West and 77th Street, slashing the distance by more than half. That was also the first year the parade, which drew 2 million spectators, was televised locally. The following year it was broadcast to a national audience.
Still setting records
Even in its 88th year, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is still setting records. The 2014 event will mark the debut of six new giant balloons, the most in any one year. The rookies include Paddington, Pikachu, Red Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, Skylanders Eruptor, Thomas the Tank Engine and Pillsbury Doughboy.
Although it is now called the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” Santa Claus remains the show-stopper, and his arrival in Herald Square still heralds in the Christmas season in New York.