Thanksgiving Traditions: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Hello Kitty character balloon passes Times Square at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade November 25, 2010 in Manhattan. | gary718

Thanksgiving in New York City means, in addition to family gatherings and turkey with all the trimmings, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

It all began on Thanksgiving Day, 1924 when Macy’s employees marched from 145th Street in Harlem to the 34th Street flagship Macy’s store. Then called the Macy’s Christmas Parade, the first parade featured live animals from the Central Park Zoo. The parade was a big hit, drawing an audience of a quarter million people. With that measure of success, Macy’s declared it would be an annual event.

New York City, NY, USA – November 22, 2018: Turkey float in NYC with pilgrim marchers and spectators near the start of The 92th annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade | Hoover Tung

The live animals were discontinued early on. Large balloons replaced them. In 1927, Felix the Cat, an air-filled balloon, made his parade debut. By 1928, there were other outsized balloons, helium-filled as they are to this day. At first, the balloons were released into the air, but that tradition was short-lived.

True to its origin as a Christmas parade, a highlight of every parade has been the arrival of Santa Claus at Macy’s to usher in the holiday season. Traditionally, Santa provides a festive finale to the procession.

The popularity of the parade grew during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The spectators soon numbered over one million. The festivities were broadcast locally over the radio beginning in 1932. The balloons depicted popular characters, introducing Mickey Mouse in 1934 and Uncle Sam in 1938.

Pikachu Pokémon balloon floats in the air during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade along Avenue of Americas with the Radio Music Hall in the background. | NYC Russ

The parade was not held during the war years of 1942, 1943, and 1944. Rubber and helium, used in the large balloons, were needed for the war effort.

New York City, NY, USA- November 28, 2019. The Pillsbury Dough Boy balloon flies down Central Park South during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. | TD Dolci

The parade returned in the first post-war year of 1945, however, and proved as popular as ever. The line of march began on 77th Street, continued down Central Park West to Columbus Circle, then onto Broadway and down to Herald Square at 34th Street. That route was followed for decades.

Film of the actual 1946 parade was incorporated into the opening scenes of the original movie classic, “Miracle on 34th Street.” By the late 1940s, the local New York parade was being televised to a national audience.

Over the years, the cast of balloons has changed with the addition of newly popular characters and the retirement of others.

10,000 people, including many Macy’s employees, participate annually in the parade. Viewers along the route now number between 2 and 3 million. The course of the parade was changed in 2009, for the first time in decades. Still beginning at 77th Street and Central Park West and ending at Herald Square, it no longer travels down Broadway, partly because Broadway at Times Square has been made into a pedestrian mall.

Although watching the parade on television works fine, it can’t compete with the excitement of being there on a Thanksgiving morning. Spectators begin lining the parade route as early as 6:30 in the morning, though the parade doesn’t kick off from 77th Street until 9.

An additional treat for potential parade watchers occurs the night before Thanksgiving when the public gets a chance to view the inflation of the giant balloons in the streets from 77th to 81st near Central Park West.

Source: John Parks

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