Every Thanksgiving morning, more than 3.5 million people pack the streets of New York City, and 50 million more Americans crowd in front of their TV sets to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, according to NYC Tourist. America’s most popular parade includes large balloons, famous singers, the Rockettes and more marching down Central Park West to celebrate Thanksgiving and usher in the holiday season with the arrival of Santa Claus. But how did this tradition first start out?
In the early 1920s, Macy’s was king in department shopping, and competition was fierce. Thanks to great business and demand, R.H. Macy & Co. was spreading nationwide, and in 1924 it expanded its Manhattan Herald Square location to the whole city block. It was a very impressive feat, and Macy’s billed the location as the “World’s Largest Store.”
As a result, Macy’s executives were looking for a way to bring more customers into the store, stand out from the competition and make a bigger deal of the Christmas shopping season as a whole. The team started to look for inspiration around the country.
According to History.com, the Gimbel Brothers Department Store in Philadelphia was the first major department store to have a parade on Thanksgiving, starting in 1920. That parade reportedly had 15 cars, about 50 marchers and a fireman who volunteered to dress like Santa to welcome in the holiday season. The executives at Macy’s thought it was a great idea, and began to plan their own event for 1924.
The first parade
The parade that took shape was called the Macy’s Christmas Parade, as it was all about promoting the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, as opposed to Thanksgiving. To get New York excited, the store took out full-page advertisements in city newspapers. The first year’s route was six miles and ran from Harlem to the flagship store. In comparison, the current parade route is only two and a half miles long.
As Macy’s developed the parade, it became clear that it would also help solve a New York City problem. At the time, it was tradition for children to dress in rags as “ragamuffins” and go door-to-door begging for candy and other treats, asking “Anything for Thanksgiving?” like modern-day Halloween trick-or-treaters. This new parade tradition would offer children a different kind of entertainment on Thanksgiving morning and keep them out of trouble.
Originally, there were no character balloons in the parade. NYC Tourist reports that the first balloon, Felix the Cat, didn’t arrive on the scene until 1927. Instead, the floats, still a big part of the modern event, were the stars of the show and were pulled by teams of horses.
According to History.com, the first parade had a Mother Goose and nursery-rhyme theme, so the floats were of Mother Goose herself, Little Miss Muffet, Little Red Riding Hood and other nursery characters. The Central Park Zoo also brought several animals, including elephants and camels, to walk the parade route. Just like today, Santa Claus, his sleigh and the reindeer brought up the end of the parade. In 1924, however, he descended from his ride to become “King of the Kiddies” and unveil the Macy’s window displays for the inaugural year.
The legacy today
Macy’s deemed the parade such a success (and such a boost to store sales) that just a few days later the store ran another advertisement in the papers to announce that the parade would return the following year. Besides a break for World War II, the now-named Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade continues to celebrate America’s national holiday and usher in the Christmas season for shoppers and revelers alike.
This article is presented by Perkins Motors in Colorado Springs, Colorado.