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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Ten Things I ♥ about NYC

I grew up in New England. New York City, with all its bustling excitement, was about three hours away. We took several school fieldtrips there. My family would also visit my grandfather—a retired professor at Columbia, who still lived a few steps from that venerable institution.

Twelve years ago this week, the unthinkable happened in the city I love to visit. It hurts to watch destruction and carnage anywhere, but this was particularly painful because it was a place I had visited (I had been to the top of the World several times), so I could imagine everything as it happened. The terrible loss of life and emotions of that day and those following will be forever writ on my heart and that of everyone who experienced that awful day. Yesterday, the anniversary of that horrible day, there were plenty of memorials to those tragic events. But I don’t want to revisit that in this blog. I want to celebrate New York City and what I love about it—then and now.

1. Theatre. I have vivid memories of seeing shows with my school and my family. We saw plays, we saw musicals, and we saw ballet. I can still recall the thrill and awe of the 40-foot Christmas tree rising from below the state at Lincoln Center during George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. It was one of my first theater-going experiences and the pageantry thrilled my seven-year-old heart. How did they get that huge tree to grow in the theatre? It was magic. It still is.

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2. Museums. Fieldtrips are supposed to be educational. Our school day in New York usually included the American Museum of Natural History or the New York Hall of Science. In part, my lifelong love affair with history and knowledge began in NYC: the life-sized blue whale that hung over one of the exhibit halls, the dioramas of Native Americans, the bones of dinosaurs that once wandered the valley where I lived—millions of years separating our existence. All of this and more is on display. New York allowed me to explore King Tut’s tomb at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and modern art at the Guggenheim. Heaven for the girl who would go on to write the blog Curiosity Seldom Pays. (Although I will confess to feeling that I could easily replicate some of the modern art—a canvas that is entirely red? Who can’t do that?)

3. Standing in history’s shadow. New York was the nation’s first capitol. George Washington was inaugurated on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in 1789. You can stand where he stood, and I have! If you’re a history buff, you can totally get your geek on just walking down the street in Manhattan—from the architecturally significant buildings to the ethnic neighborhoods that tell the story of the American immigrant to the literary pilgrimage spots. New York has history in spades.

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4. The Empire State Building. One of those architecturally significant buildings was completed in 1931, and for 40 years the art deco building was the world’s tallest at 102 stories (1250 feet, not including the spire antenna). With observation decks on both the 86th and 102nd floors, you can see all of New York City laid out below you, and on a really clear day, you can see almost 80 miles in every direction—giving you a glimpse of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania as well. History, architecture, and a really great view. What more could you ask?

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5. The Staten Island Ferry. It’s free! In a city where it costs $8.50 to get a small soda (okay, slight exaggeration), free is a miracle. Save your money and skip a harbor cruise; be a real New Yorker and try the ferry. The Staten Island Ferry makes over 100 trips a day during the work week (and around 70 a day on the weekends). The five mile, 25-minute (each way) trip offers a respite from the jostling crowds and some of the best views in New York: the famed New York Skyline, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty.

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6. Ellis Island. A recent addition to my New York favorites, we took the kids a couple of years ago. We were on what I like to call the Great AP US History (APUSH) Tour of the East Coast. I could easily imagine the nervous immigrants treading the stairs in the Great Hall. Some of my ancestors came through the earlier immigration station, Castle Garden, but I guess the feelings and emotions were the same. Freedom. A chance for a better life. The welcome of Lady Liberty’s raised lamp (Ellis Island opened in 1892, and the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886.), which offer the promise of light and hope for the future, is still a powerful symbol today. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum is an excellent chance to recall where we came from and to reflect on where we want to go.

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7. The food. When I was a kid, I loved it when my parents would buy us pretzels from the food carts. I grew up in a street-vendorless college town, so buying food off the street was an exotic experience. Then there were the restaurants: My first glass of red wine was in an Italian restaurant in Little Italy, which was also as my introduction to the antipasto platter. There was prosciutto and unusual cheeses from Zabar’s on the Upper West Side, which was my grandfather’s favorite; the smell of coffee from Chock Full O Nuts, where my dad liked to grab a cup of coffee and a snack; there were deli’s with stacks of meat on fresh rye bread—like at the Second Avenue Deli (which is no longer on Second Avenue!) where we took the kids on the Great APUSH Tour—and there was the fabulous New York pizza. (Note to the so-called NY-style pizza place locally: you’re doing it wrong.) So much good food and so many great memories of sharing it with family and friends!

8. The rhythm of New York. People moved quicker. They talked quicker. They seemed to live quicker. The pace of the town I grew up in was sleepy, so it was eye-opening—and exhilarating—to adjust to the pace of New York. As it turns out, I’m more of a college-town girl, but I still enjoy the periodic foray into an urban playground.

9. The subway. The subway is an awesome tool for an aspiring writer. There are hundreds of people riding with you. Where are they going? What are their stories? Are they happy or sad? Tourist or native? Worker bee or boss? How do they talk, interact, live? The possibilities are endless, the stories infinite. Oh, and it’s also pretty dang fun to practice subway surfing. Look, Ma! No hands!

10. Everything else. It’s impossible to list only ten great things about New York—the resilient people, the fabulous Central Park, the skating at Rockefeller Center, the Christmas decorations, the movie locations, the collective knowledge of the universities, the parades, .… I’m so glad to have some small ties to this iconic city. Rock on New York. I’m delighted you’re there.

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Text ©Rebecca Bigelow
Photos ©Rebecca Bigelow and Ian Brooks

Additional Reading: