Pilgrim’s Progress

When the Pilgrims and Native Americans sat down at their three-day celebration to give thanks for a bountiful harvest in 1621, they could not have imagined the trappings of a modern thanksgiving. Football? Green bean casserole? A 2.5 mile parade through a metropolis? All inconceivable!

More than 200 years later, the idea of our modern-style Thanksgiving gained traction when it was made a fixed national holiday in the United States by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Football on Thanksgiving came a few years later in 1869, but green bean casserole wasn’t invented until 1955. In between the two latter dates, R.H. Macy loaned his name to the best-known holiday parade in the United States when employees organized the first procession to Macy’s flagship store in New York City.

Will It Play in Peoria?

Although the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is now synonymous with Thanksgiving and is the way millions of Americans herald the holiday season, it isn’t the longest running holiday parade in the United States. That honor belongs to the Santa Claus Parade in Peoria, Illinois, which is now held the day after Thanksgiving and first welcomed Santa in 1889 (versions of the parade were held in both 1887 and 1888 to celebrate first the groundbreaking and later the completion of a new bridge, but St. Nick was not featured).

And despite the Macy Parade’s starring role in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street, Macy’s wasn’t even the first parade held on Thanksgiving day. Ironically, that honor belonged to Macy’s real life—and reel life—rival: Gimbels, which first held their parade in 1920 in Philadelphia. Ellis Gimbel attracted children (and their parents) to his toy department with a parade that included 15 cars, 50 people, and the jolly elf himself. Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving parade remains the longest running one in the country, although since the demise of Gimbels stores in the 1980s, the parade has been renamed several times to recognize new sponsors.

 Broadway Debut

Four years after Gimbels’ first parade, in 1924, New York Macy’s employees held their first attempt, but the parade didn’t look much like the one held today. Although held on Thanksgiving, it was called a Christmas parade, and it was held without balloons. The route, which ended at the Herald Square Macy’s—as every Macy’s Parade since has done—began not at 77th Street as the parade does today, but at 145th Street and Covenant in Harlem, making the original route more than six miles long (or more than twice as long as today’s approximately 2.5 mile route).

elephants Macy's
Elephants from the Central Park Zoo.

Kris Kringle—already the main event—was brought in by “a retinue of clowns, freaks, animals and floats,” according to an article in The New York Times. The freaks were not explained, but the clowns were costumed employee volunteers, the animals were borrowed from the Central Park Zoo, and the floats had a Mother Goose theme to match the decorated Mother Goose Christmas–themed windows at the Macy’s store. Crowd estimates were put at 10,000 in Herald Square and another 250,000 along the route.

Santa Macy'sThe first Santa float.

Once Santa arrived, he was crowned “King of the Kiddies.” The event was declared a rousing success, and Macy’s vowed to repeat the effort the following year. Indeed they have done so every year since, with the exception of the years 1942–1944, when the rubber and helium used in the parade was deemed more valuable to America’s war effort than to the parade. Interestingly, however, both Philadelphia’s and Peoria’s parades continued through the war years uninterrupted.

So Much Hot Air

Freaks notwithstanding, the Macy’s parade began to look less like a circus parade and more like the modern version in 1927—the first year balloons were used. The early balloons (four in the 1927 parade, including a dragon and Felix the Cat) were brought to the parade by puppeteer and theatrical designer Anthony Sarg. They were small, filled with air, controlled like a puppet by the volunteer handlers, and were more like floats (falloons, in modern terminology) than today’s high-soaring balloons.

Felix the catThe Felix the Cat balloon. Look, Ma! Only four handlers.

Still, the cat was out of the bag, and the live animals were permanently retired to the zoo. Helium was added to the balloons a year later and has been used every year the parade has run since, with two exceptions: In 1958 a helium shortage force parade organizers to transport the air-filled balloons on trucks and with cranes, and in 1971, high winds grounded the balloons.

P1180481Helium tankers deliver the gas to the public balloon inflation on Wednesday.

Balloons and floats for the modern parade are all created at Macy’s year-round parade studio in Hoboken, New Jersey. After several accidents in high winds, balloon size has been reduced, the number of handlers required for each balloon has been upped to a minimum of 50, and the balloons must be tethered to a vehicle, not just people. Additionally, traffic signals are turned out of the path of the parade or removed altogether, and the balloons are grounded if winds are sustained over 23 miles per hour. Floats have their own requirements on size, but the elves at the Hoboken studios make them so they fold up to 12 feet by 8 feet so they can fit through the Lincoln Tunnel on their way to and from the parade.

P1180696Notice the traffic lights have been moved out of the way.

 No Strings Attached

How much does it cost for Macy’s to create a balloon or float? Well, Macy’s is notoriously tightlipped on this matter. They have stated that they consider the parade to be a gift to the people of New York and the viewers at home, arguing that a gift giver does not announce the price of the gift to the recipient. Still, there are estimates that a new balloon will cost the sponsor as much as $190,000, with a repeat entry coming in around $90,000. A float is said to average $60,000.

In 2015, the balloons are a lot bigger and require many more handlers than in the earliest parades.

The performers are volunteers—mostly with Macy’s—but the groups that come to the parade, like a marching band, pay their own expenses. Last year, the University of Virginia marching band estimated their trip cost would be in the neighborhood of a quarter-million dollars. Groups that come from farther away have higher costs. Stephen F. Austin State University, which came from Texas, estimated their costs at more than $1,500 per person for their more than 300 band member because they had to charter planes. The University of Illinois’ Marching Illini did not announce a final price tag, as fundraising covered most of the expense for their trip, which included seven charter buses, meals and hotels, rehearsal space, and more, for approximately 400 people in the band organization for their four days in New York.

In exchange, after weeks of practice and hard work, and a two or three a.m. rehearsal in front of Macy’s for the live performers, each balloon, float, or band is rewarded with a few seconds of television coverage on Thanksgiving morning. In fact, each band was allotted one minute and fifteen seconds for their Herald Square performance this year. It may seem like a lot of work for little reward, but 175 bands auditioned for the chance to participate this year. Twelve were accepted. Macy’s has no shortage of bands, performers, and sponsors that want to be part of this annual holiday tradition.

I Always Think There Is a Band Kid

As traditions go, I confess, I think football should be a 15 minute game played between two halves of a marching band concert, and I think green bean casserole is an abomination to green beans. But I love a parade. And the approximately 3 million people who lined the streets of New York and the millions of viewers on TV who made last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade the highest rated non-sports show of the fall season agree with me.

Text ©2016 by Rebecca Bigelow;
Historic photos (1–3) Macy’s Public Domain;
Remaining color photos ©2015 by Rebecca Bigelow and Ian Brooks

Additional Reading:

Early Parade Information:

Information on Parade Costs:

Macy’s Parade Tidbits:

2015 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade Marching Band Info

 

 

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