There are a couple traditions we can count on during our Turkey Day festivities every year: a stretchy pants–worthy feast, a heated dinner-table political debate, and watching the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (on TV, of course; why suffer the cold and crowds when you can watch from home with a cup of spiked hot cider?).
As the official kickoff to the holiday season in New York City for almost a century, the parade has a long and storied history—and we’re sharing some of its most fascinating secrets with you. They might come in handy as good subject-changers when your family starts talking about tax reform.
1. The parade didn’t start as a Thanksgiving celebration.
The event was first held on Thanksgiving Day in 1924, but it originally sported a different name: the Macy’s Christmas Parade. The two-block-long procession enchanted more than 250,000 people, who lined the sidewalks to witness a spectacle of lively jazz bands, Central Park Zoo animals, and Macy’s employees dressed as clowns and gypsies. The Christmas parade was actually requested by many Macy’s employees, especially those who were immigrants and wanted to celebrate a new chapter in their lives. Three years later, they let Turkey Day come out from behind Christmas’s shadow and renamed the affair the Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Did You Know? You must weigh at least 120 pounds to become a balloon handler. Otherwise, you risk floating up!
2. Parade-goers may become extras in a film.
It’s no secret that 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street—arguably one of the most recognized Christmas movies of all time—opens on the famous spectacle. But did you know that the scene is made up of actual footage taken from the 1946 parade? Producers set up cameras to follow the floats, larger-than-life balloons, and performers; and being a live event, there was no room for error. Little did onlookers know, the man in the Santa costume that year was indeed Edmund Gwenn, the actor who played Kris Kringle in the film.
Did You Know? From 1939 to 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date of Thanksgiving up a week to increase retail sales during the Great Depression.
3. The first-ever balloon was…
The enormous balloons that have become a Thanksgiving Day staple weren’t actually introduced to the public until three years after the parade first began. Designer and puppeteer Anthony Frederick Sarg brought his passion for developing characters to his role as artistic director of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Many say that the comic strip character Felix the Cat was the very first balloon to make its way through the city streets; however, some would argue the first was actually a 21-foot-tall “human behemoth.“ That year was also the first time balloons were filled with air; that changed when Sarg chose to inflate his creations with helium in 1928. (In 1958, a helium shortage forced organizers to return to air inflation and actually hang the main attractions from construction cranes.)
Did You Know? All balloons must squeeze into a 12-by-8-foot box for transportation purposes.
4. Parade balloons fought in World War II.
In 1942, Macy’s beloved holiday affair was canceled due to the United States’s involvement in World War II. This may be a popular fact found in the history books, but it’s not common knowledge that Macy’s president Jack Strauss donated all of the balloon rubber (650 pounds of it!) to the military. The parade didn’t resume until 1945, opening with nine new balloons and attracting more than two million spectators.
Did You Know? The only time that Santa Claus was not featured as the parade’s grand finale was in 1933. He led the procession that year.
5. A parade balloon almost downed a plane.
When it came to the deflating process at the end of the parade…well, there actually wasn’t one. Up until 1932, Macy’s would simply let the helium-filled bubbles float into the sky. Those lucky enough to find them were rewarded with store gift cards if they brought the balloons back (they all had return addresses printed on them). This tradition eventually stopped after a balloon got caught in the wing of an airplane and caused an almost fatal situation. Imagine the damage a massive Hello Kitty could inflict nowadays!