Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

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Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

For many Americans Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which takes place in New York City, symbolizes the start of the holiday season (see also Christmas Season). It also announces the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Macy's, a department store chain that began in New York City, launched the yearly parades in 1924 as a means of advertising its stores at the start of the year's busiest shopping season. In 2001 the parade celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary. It featured 30 giant balloons, 28 floats and falloons (float and balloon combinations), 12 marching bands, 14 music and dance ensembles, over 20 groups of clowns, and performances from four Broadway shows. The Radio City Rockettes, a group of New York City dancers, also appeared in the parade, in addition to a number of celebrities. Four thousand Macy's employees helped to stage the two-and-one-half-mile parade, which takes place between 9:00 a.m. and noon on Thanksgiving Day. Although similar Thanksgiving Day parades - also sponsored by department stores - take place in Detroit and Chicago, national television coverage has helped to make the New York parade an American institution.

Store-sponsored Thanksgiving Day parades developed in the 1920s as a means of attracting Christmas season shoppers. In the nineteenthcentury many cities instead hosted military parades on Thanksgiving Day. In addition to the military parade, the citizens of New York City celebrated Thanksgiving Day with a few unique customs that may have helped to inspire the format of Macy's parade.

Thanksgiving Day in Nineteenth-Century New York

In the late nineteenth century many New Yorkers celebrated Thanksgiving Day with public masquerades. Bands of working-class men dressed in costume and paraded around the streets. Known as "fantasticals," they often lubricated their costumed hijinks with liberal amounts of alcohol. Their parades began early in the morning and were accompanied by blaring horns, much to the annoyance of those who preferred to sleep in. They usually ended their march about town with a meal in one of the city's parks and in the evening often attended costumed balls.

Children who participated in Thanksgiving Day masquerades were called ragamuffins. They did not march with the adults but rather begged for coins or treats under the cover of costume, much in the way children do today at Halloween. Frequently, boys dressed as girls and girls dressed as boys. White children blackened their faces with soot while black children whitened their faces with powdered talc. The sight of children dressed up in old clothes and make-up was so common that some New Yorkers called Thanksgiving "Ragamuffin Day."

The Target Companies provided another Thanksgiving Day public spectacle for nineteenth-century New Yorkers. These bands of young men, most of whom belonged to a slightly higher social class than did the fantasticals, enjoyed being soldiers for a day. They gave their "company" a name, dressed in boots and military costumes, and marched to a city park to practice target shooting. Since most practiced only once a year, there were not many good shots among them. Proper military parades also took place in New York and other U.S. cities on Thanksgiving Day.

Some commentators believe that the November antics of the ragamuffins and fantasticals began as celebrations of the final withdrawal of British troops from the city, which took place on November 25, 1783. Others view them as Carnival customs that somehow migrated from early spring to autumn. Researcher Diana Karter Appelbaum suggests that they might instead have grown out of early Guy Fawkes Day celebrations - commemorated by the British on November 5 - which moved to Thanksgiving Day as the city's inhabitants began to think of themselves less as British and more as Americans. As the twentieth century dawned and rolled on, fewer and fewer people celebrated Thanksgiving Day as fantasticals or ragamuffins, however. These customs died out around the time of World War II.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Begins

Thus, when Macy's launched its first parade in 1924 the sight of people marching through the streets of New York in costume on Thanksgiving Day was nothing new. Though the organizers of Macy's parade may have found inspiration in New York's old parade and masquerade customs, the most immediate influence was likely to have been the parades sponsored by Gimbel's department store in Philadelphia in 1921 and Hudson's department store in Detroit in 1923. These stores had used the parades to convince the public that the Christmas shopping season began as early as Thanksgiving and to draw shoppers into their store. Macy's thought the gimmick a good one and followed suit.

The first parade featured Macy's employees dressed in costumes, animals on loan from the Central Park Zoo, and Santa Claus, who unveiled Macy's store window display as the finale of the parade. The parade was a hit with New Yorkers and a great boost for the store. In fact, Macy's estimated that the parade contributed to bringing 5,000 children per day to visit the Santa who held court at the store. A few years after the parade's installation, however, devout citizens began to complain that the popular event drew people away from morning church services held in honor of the day. The complaint led Macy's to change the parade from the morning to the afternoon hours. Several years later, however, Macy's reinstated the morning parade. Parade administrators didn't want their event to conflict with the increasingly popular afternoon football games that were beginning to draw even bigger audiences than the church services.

Balloons

The first few parades did not include the gigantic balloons that characterized the event in later years. These first appeared in 1927 and were the invention of Tony Sarg, an expert puppeteer and designer that Macy's hired to help jazz up their show. Sarg got rid of the wild zoo animals, because they frightened away the little children, and replaced them with papier mâché creatures. Finding inspiration in the dirigible and zeppelin - the helium-inflated flying devices of his day - and drawing on his experience as a puppeteer, he designed a number of huge airborne balloons shaped like a dragon, a toy soldier, an elephant, and a cartoon character named Felix the Cat. Sarg viewed his creations as enormous, upside-down marionettes, manipulated by ropes from below, rather than by strings by above. He called them "balloonatics."

Making the balloonatics required the help of expert manufacturers. Sarg sent his designs to the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. Goodyear executed the designs in rubber and fabric and sealed them with airship cement.

In the early years, the public not only loved the sight of the tethered giants careening down broad city streets, but also thrilled to the sport of hunting them down afterwards. At the end of the parade the balloon wranglers simply let the big behemoths go, knowing that they would eventually deflate and sink to earth. Macy's gave a cash reward to anyone who found and returned the deflated balloons. In 1931 world-class pilot Clarence Chamberlin caught sight of the unleashed Jerry the Pig balloon bobbing over Brooklyn's Prospect Park on Thanksgiving Day. He roped the balloon and towed it back to the ground, winning not only Macy's cash reward but also a good deal of publicity. Nevertheless, the policy of releasing the balloons with cash rewards for their return caused unexpected problems. Some people shot the balloons down, damaging them for future use. The most alarming incident occurred in 1932, however, when a student pilot and her instructor nearly collided with a giant cat balloon that had ascended to 5,000 feet. After that, Macy's quietly deflated the balloons at the end of the parade route.

The big balloons have continued to cause problems over the years. A Santa Claus balloon exploded during inflation in 1941. High winds took out all but one balloon during the 1956 parade. A helium shortage in 1958 meant that the balloons had to be filled with air and then suspended from cranes for the duration of the parade. In 1971 strong winds led to the cancellation of the parade balloons.

Nevertheless, the big balloons are the most noted feature of the parade. One of the biggest balloons in the 2001 parade, representing Thommy, Chuckie, and Spike from the Rugrats cartoon series, measured 48 feet high, 60 feet long, and 28 feet wide. Sixteen thousand seven hundred eighty cubic feet of helium filled out the balloon while 46 handling lines assured wranglers of some control over the enormous cartoon characters. Since the big balloons are capable of lifting over 600 pounds, wranglers must work the giant, inflatable puppets in groups at all times. Each wrangler must weigh at least 125 pounds.

World War II

The Thanksgiving Parade was cancelled in 1942, 1943, and 1944, due to World War II. In 1942, Macy's surrendered its balloons to wartime officials in response to the government's call for citizens to donate rubber to the military. Making a spectacle out of the event, parade officials inflated one of the balloons - a giant, green dragon - and escorted it to city hall. When they arrived, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, also head of the Office of Civilian Defense, took a long knife and "slew" the beast. By handing over its balloons, Macy's contributed 650 pounds of rubber to the war effort.

National Popularity

The parade resumed in 1945, drawing a crowd of two million as well as attracting its first television coverage. In 1948 television coverage went nationwide, expanding the parade's potential viewing audience from coast to coast. The 1947 Christmas film Miracle on 34thStreet generated further publicity for the event by setting the opening scenes of the story at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. By the 1950s the opportunity to ride in the parade drew well-known celebrities. In 1957, the first high school marching band participated. The marching bands, as well as other groups of young entertainers, would become a regular feature of the parade, with hopeful candidates auditioning yearly before Macy's judges. The 1970s saw the first falloons - part float, part balloon - enter the parade.

Commercial Effects and Influences

From its modest beginnings, the parade has grown to become big business for the Big Apple. In the late 1990s the mayor's office estimated that the parade generated just over $24 million of economic activity annually in New York City. But the economic effects of the parade are also felt far away from New York. About 60 million people watch the parade each year, either in person or on television. This enormous audience, glued to television sets right at the start of the Christmas shopping season, creates plenty of opportunity for what some have termed holiday commercialism. For example, many companies pay Macy's for putting a balloon in the parade that will promote one of their products. Quite a number of the characters represented by the Macy's parade balloons are licensed images. In the late 1990s companies were paying about $350,000 to have their character represented as a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving parade.

In the year 2001 some of the "commercial" balloons included Jimmy Neutron (sponsored by Nickelodeon), Snoopy (sponsored by United Feature Syndicate), Arthur (sponsored by the Learning Company), Cheesasaurus Rex (sponsored by Kraft Macaroni and Cheese), Pikachu (sponsored by the Pokémon Company), Ronald McDonald (sponsored by McDonald's Corporation), Barney the purple dinosaur (sponsored by HIT Entertainment), Big Bird (sponsored by Sesame Workshop), Jeeves (sponsored by Ask Jeeves, Inc.) and the Honey-Nut Cheerios Bee (sponsored by Honey-Nut Cheerios). Non-commercial balloons in 2001, billed as novelty balloons, included an elf, a flying fish, Chloe the Holiday Clown, Harold the Fireman, a hippopotamus, an ice cream cone, and a toy soldier.

Where and When

The parade begins at 9:00 a.m. at the intersection of 77th Street and Central Park West. It ends around noon at the Macy's store in Herald Square. Located at 34th Street and Sixth Avenue, this, Macy's flagship branch, bills itself as the largest department store in the world. Just as he did in the early days, Santa Claus still brings up the rear of the parade. Promoters bill his arrival at Herald Square as the official start of the holiday season in New York.

Further Reading

Appelbaum, Diana Karter. Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An AmericanHistory. New York: Facts on File, 1984. Pool, Daniel. Christmas in New York. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997.

Web Site

The New York Historical Society maintains a web exhibit on the parade at:
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