22 November 2022
Like magic, giant astronauts, clowns, and alligators float into the sky, tethered by hundreds of people. Clowns, cowboys, and knights handle roaring bears, elephants, monkeys, and camels, all walking down Harlem. Marching bands step in time, filling the street with festive music and cheer. The audience cheers in awe, not sure what to look at first. History has been made.
When people think about Thanksgiving, the event most associated with it is the Macy’s Day Parade, a public event in New York City spanning from Central Park West to Columbus Circle. Onlookers can watch dancers, floats, and marching bands perform from the sidewalks, and televised for people at home during football season. Every year, people return time and time again to watch this spectacle with family and friends.
The parade has been a staple of the November month for decades, gracing streets and televisions nationwide every year. But how did this tradition start? The origin of the parade and its history is indeed a tale to tell.
In the 1920s, the idea of a holiday parade in New York was not unheard of. One common tradition was the Ragamuffin parade, in which children would dress in rags and go door to door to ask for goods, such as pennies or candy. However, in a time where people were in poverty, a lot of adults were upset by the tradition, and had nothing to give to the children. Department stores offered a solution to this problem, having holiday parades that could still entertain children, such as the Gimbel Brothers’ parade or J.L Hudson Company’s Thanksgiving parade.
Following in the spirit of other departments, Macy advertised their children’s ‘Christmas Parade’ for November 17th in 1924. The event was promoted in stores and fliers as a ‘marathon of mirth’; 6 miles from Harlem to Herald square. Spectators could watch the procession easily, and by free admission as well.
The theme of the first parade was nursery rhymes, and featured several story character floats like Miss Muffet, Red Riding Hood, and the Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe. Not only that, but Macy’s department store also had workers dress in costumes and rent out animals from the central park. The center attraction was a float with Santa Claus, who greeted children to celebrate the season. It was truly a marvel to behold, and went off so well that in the newspaper the day after, Macy’s declared that they would be holding this parade every year.
The parade’s history was not without its mishaps, many involving the iconic character floats. Originally, Macy’s used to set free their parade floats at the end of every parade, and offered thousands of dollars for whoever could find them. Unfortunately, this meant that they would often get caught in inopportune places. In 1928, the ‘Sky Tiger’ balloon fell onto a city in Long Island and created a fight for who got to claim it and the following prize money. In 1932, an aviator crashed into a loose Felix the Cat parade balloon in the attempt to down it for the prize money. After some time, it was decided for the safety of the public to stop this competition. This doesn’t even encapsulate the amount of injuries caused from floats still in the parade. Regulations preventing spectators from getting close to certain floats and balloons have been put in place to prevent this.
With its hiccups, the parade has been able to persist from year to year. In 2020, the parade was not accessible to the public because of health regulations. Instead, they had a small procession from Manhattan to Herald Square, and was closed to the public. The marchers were all masked, and the parade was only viewable on tv. For the 2022 Thanksgiving parade, children under 12 are not allowed to climb on or around floats, and every marcher is required to be fully vaccinated. Attendees are also recommended to prioritize the public health and safety at the event.
With such a rich history, it is an event that everyone should experience at least once in their life.