The History Behind Your Favorite Thanksgiving Tradition

By Alejandra Zamora
An orange and white Snoopy balloon floats over crowd in city

Bright and early on Thanksgiving morning, you might be rising to prep pie doughs, get a head start on roasting your bird, or dicing onions and celery for stuffing ahead of your family gathering. But in New York City, long before the sun rises to peek between the skyscrapers, giant cartoon characters emerge to greet the streets, dancers and cheerleaders stretch prior to enchanting performances, Broadway casts and pop singers warm up their vocal cords, and somewhere, Santa Claus himself gets ready to make his official debut.

Let’s take a look at the history behind the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

No one expected the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to turn into the spectacle it is today.

What started as a 6-mile procession of floats, a couple hundred Macy’s employees and a band of zoo animals was meant to be a marketing campaign to ramp up Christmas shopping at the famous New York City department store.

Looking to replace the long-standing tradition of the “ragamuffin” pastime in which face-painted children wearing tattered clothes would go door to door asking for a Thanksgiving handout, the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade positioned itself before the big football game of the afternoon and, of course, before the feast of the evening. While over 10,000 people marveled at the procession on the city streets, the celebration only earned two sentences in the following day’s New York Herald paper.

Despite its low press coverage, the large turnout and buzz around town drove Macy’s to announce its return the following year. In the next morning’s paper, Macy’s released its advertisement, stating, “We did not dare dream its success would be so great.” In subsequent parades, Macy’s adjusted its strategy to cater to some of the crowd’s wishes, including reducing the parade’s route to 2.5 miles and replacing the live zoo animals with the beloved giant balloons we know today: Felix the Cat was the parade’s first balloon, debuting in 1927. Of course, however, this balloon was modest in size compared to what we’re used to in modern parades.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the parade debuted its truly gigantic character balloons, with the first being a nearly 100-foot Superman at the start of the decade. Since then, iconic characters have been blown up larger and larger each year, turning every new debut into a spectacle for adults and kids alike. Aside from balloon upgrades, each subsequent parade involved more spectators, star-studded appearances, intricately designed floats and much more.

The Parade of Today

Now, the well-recognized event continues to be a cherished Thanksgiving Day tradition across the country, and it increases in production value and size with each passing year. The years of history behind the Thanksgiving Day parade have made it what it is today. According to People Magazine, here’s what it took to put on the 95th celebration:

  • 300 pounds of glitter
  • 200 pounds of confetti
  • 240 gallons of paint
  • 4,800 volunteers
  • 50,000+ hours of labor

Each moving piece comes together to create the beloved parade that over 50 million Americans tune into each year. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of the past and present may be starkly different, but the awe and captivation it provokes year after year has remained the same, mesmerizing adults and children alike as it continues to present the most timeless of Thanksgiving pastimes.


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