Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
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32 Things You Never Knew About the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

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Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
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Macy’s Parade Trivia

A New York City holiday tradition that’s gone worldwide, the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is set to return. After a pandemic-curtailed event in 2020, the much-anticipated annual march returns Nov. 25 and is set to again delight spectators who in the past have numbered upward of 3.5 million along the route. Read on for a whirlwind survey about the iconic event that is the unofficial start to the holiday season in many a household, including the 50 million people that traditionally tune in from home. 


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Macy's Day Parade
Macy's, Inc.

It’s Nearly a Century Old

This year marks the 95th edition of the beloved parade offered by the department store. The parade will wind its way through New York City to the Macy’s Herald Square flagship, where more than 1 million square feet of retail space fills an entire city block on 34th Street and Broadway.    


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Golden silver glitter
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It’s a Year-Round Effort

The parade is far from a one-day affair. A 72,000-square-foot warehouse in Moonachie, New Jersey, is the current home of the Macy’s Parade Studio, where a team of more than 30 skilled artists, from carpenters to animators, work to build the parade’s elements. Among those elements are 300 pounds of glitter, which is “sprinkled on costumes, floats and more.” The Parade Studio team will put in 50,000-plus hours of labor over the course of a year, and this includes designing and maintaining 4,200 costumes for the parade participants.     

 

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Macy's Day Parade
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The Balloon Team Is Extensive

The signature balloons are a big deal, with the design and creation process moving in-house in 1984. Balloon handlers, captains and pilots comprise the team for each balloon and as expected, training is key. A “Balloonfest” is held to “test fly each new balloon, giving balloon handlers hands-on training and the flight team an opportunity to pilot the new creations.” Those tasked with this key job rely on whistle and hand signals as well as verbal commands. And, Macy’s notes, “Cool fact: One pilot is assigned to watch the balloon from the front by walking backwards for the entire route.”      

Macy's Day Parade
Macy's, Inc.

The First Parade Was Very Different Than Today

It’s come a long way since the first parade in 1924, when Macy’s employees petitioned for a parade to “give thanks” during the Christmas season. It was, in fact, known as the Macy’s Christmas Parade in its earliest years with the two-block procession going from 145th Street to the Macy’s flagship and featuring live animals, employees in costume and plenty of jazz (this was the Jazz Era, remember). Side note: The use of elephants, tigers and other animals from the Central Park Zoo in the parade lasted only a few years, since their raucous noises rattled the children along the route.    


Related: Vintage Christmas Photos: A Century of Celebrating the Holidays

Macy's Day Parade
Macy's, Inc.

A Theatrical Touch Was Integrated

The 1920s saw the parade become a home for creativity, with noted theater and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes tapped to add zest to the floats. Among his creations were Humpty Dumpty, Cinderella’s Coach and the now-iconic Santa’s float, which would become the parade’s signature grand finale.  

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
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Some Balloon Handlers Became Balloons

There’s a 1928 report, Macy’s says, when a “balloon handler levitates.” It turns out that as early balloon technicians worked on getting the helium amounts correct, some handlers found themselves some 10 feet off the ground.      

Macy's NYC Christmas Windows
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The “Sarg Factor” Was Instrumental

Tony Sarg, a star 1920s puppeteer and illustrator, became a big part of the Macy’s story, creating so many of the marionette scenes that filled the Macy’s holiday window displays. In the early years, these now iconic windows — a tourist destination in themselves — were unveiled at the parade’s finish.    

 

Related: Vintage Photos of Christmas Parades From When You Were a Kid

Macy's Day Parade
Macy's, Inc.

You Could Catch a Balloon

In a short-lived promotion (1929-1932), a handful of the massive balloons were released at the end of the parade, with gifts presented to those who found and returned the former parade stars to Macy’s. As expected, this caused quite a frenzy — and was great publicity.   

Vintage Radio Tuner and Dials
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You Could ‘Watch the Parade’ on Radio

The 1930s saw celebrities such as Harpo Marx and Benny Goodman participating in the parade and allowed those at home to follow the action — on radio, as WOR Radio began to broadcast the festivities in 1938.    


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Macy's Day Parade
Macy's, Inc.

The Parade Paused for World War II

Macy’s president Jack Straus made a dramatic announcement in 1942 that a wartime edition of the parade would not be held, with the department store donating the rubber from the deflated “green dragon” balloon to the U.S. military. The parade would not be back until 1945.      

The 94th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
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Other Tragedies Have Impacted the Proceedings

The parade has gone on during subsequent U.S. tragedies, after consideration. Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Macy’s noted that, “In 1963, a phone call to Macy’s from the Kennedy family answers the question. The show must go on.” After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Macy’s decided, “We march on.” Its history notes, “We will not be defined by tragedy.” First responders were involved, and those lost were honored with a moment of silence in this unusual edition. In 2020, of course, the pandemic safety protocols led to a TV-oriented, curtailed edition that discouraged spectators.     

Macy's Day Parade
Macy's, Inc.
Preparing for the winter, warm clothing
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Parade-Goers Have Been Given Wardrobe Advice

With the parade being held in November in the Northeast, the weather can vary from unseasonably warm to downright frigid. In the 1940s, Macy’s capitalized on the propensity for chilly weather with an ad devoted to the “Macy’s Hat Parade,” a clever ploy to promote buying special hats to keep the children in attendance warm. The fashions ranged from long wool hats to sheepskin-lined, aviator-inspired models complete with chin straps for those parade “co-pilots.”    

Shirley Temple
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The Celebrity Factor Was Upped in the 1950s

As the parade gained increasing national attention, its ties to the world of celebrity continued with 1950s editions featuring participation from “Howdy Doody,” Ginger Rogers, Jackie Gleason, and Shirley Temple Black, the former child star who was dubbed the “Princess of the 1959 parade.”      

Macy's Day Parade
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Helium’s Scarcity Led to a 1950s Hack

In 1958, Macy’s says, the government asked “Macy’s to forgo helium amidst a nationwide shortage.” This led to a decidedly clever solution — the balloons were inflated with “regular” air, and cranes were constructed to carry them down the parade route. This year would also mark the last year the unveiling of the windows would occur at the parade’s end. The 1958 parade is also notable as it marked the store’s 100th Christmas — and the first appearance of the Rockettes, the famed Radio City Music Hall precision dance troupe that is now one of the parade’s most iconic elements.       

The 93rd Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
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The ’60s Were Focused on Exploration

As the parade reflects society, the 1960s saw the modernization of the parade’s floats to incorporate hydraulics, a push led by Manfred Bass, a children’s book illustrator and sculptor who joined the Macy’s team. A nod to the decade’s exploration of space, the Astronaut Snoopy balloon made its debut in 1969, the year man reached the moon.     


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Macy's Day Parade
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Entertainment Ruled the 1970s Parades

The focus was on glitzy entertainment in the 1970s parades, especially when Jean McFaddin took over as parade director in 1977. She was instrumental in the addition of Broadway show scenes to the parade, which was by then notable for reflecting pop culture icons ranging from singer Diana Ross to stuntman Evel Knievel.      

Macy's Day Parade
Macy's, Inc.

The ’80s Editions Were About Excess

The cultural excesses of the 1980s, from giant shoulder pads to the “Wall Street” catchphrase “Greed is Good,” were also somehow reflected in the parade — and hinted at in the early ’80s. The “Annie” float debuted in 1981 and was one of the largest floats ever built by the Macy’s Parade Studio. It was a replica of the title character’s orphanage as well as the Daddy Warbucks mansion. Capitalizing on the successful Broadway show, the float would sport nearly 20 actors from the original film released in 1982.     

 

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Macy's Day Parade
Macy's Day Parade by S Pakhrin (CC BY)

The ‘Falloon’ Is a Macy’s Invention

The Macy’s parade has its own lingo — including the “falloon,” which was introduced in the 1990s. Macy’s says this invention is a “cold-air inflatable balloon and float combo,” with early examples devoted to “The Wizard of Oz” and Paddington Bear.     

Macy's Day Parade
Macy's, Inc.

Macy’s Balloons Have Been Treated as Art

In the mid-1990s, Macy’s held a “Balloon-a-Thon” in the Park Slope Armory in Brooklyn, the first indoor exhibition of the parade elements and a fundraiser for local community nonprofits. Begun in 2005, the Blue Sky Gallery is a special section of the parade showcasing balloons as contemporary art and has featured balloons reflecting the work of artists, such as Jeff Koons’ “Rabbit.”         

Macy's Day Parade Miss Piggy
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The 90th Edition Marked Another 90th

It was the 2016 parade that not only marked Macy’s 90th edition but also the 90th birthday of another New York icon, Tony Bennett. His 90th festivities included a duet with Miss Piggy, after which the puppet apparently saved the singer from falling when the parade float jolted to its start.     

Macy's Day Parade
Macy's Day Parade by Angela Zhao (CC BY-ND)

The Parade’s an Award Winner

The parade earned its first Daytime Emmy Award for its 1979 broadcast, with a second one coming in 1982, when that year’s broadcast earned an 80 million-strong viewership. There’s also a permanent plaque at the corner of 77th Street and Central Park West in Manhattan, the parade’s starting line, which is dedicated to the volunteers and was installed to mark the 90th anniversary parade. Several books, from historical overviews to fictional children’s stories, have been written about the parade, including “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” by Robert M. Grippo and Christopher Hoskins (Arcadia Publishing) and the lavish Life magazine commemorative book, “America’s Parade: A Celebration of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”    

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
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The Parade Features a Tree That Sings

Actually, the Macy’s Singing Christmas Tree is a popular group that sings in a “tree formation” some 43 feet tall and features more than 60 Macy’s colleagues from around the country led by Grammy- and Emmy-nominated conductor Judith Clurman. This quirky touch is a nod to the 1950s Macy Singers, a choral group of store employees who not only performed but also released an album.   

Macy's Day Parade Cat in the Hat
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There Have Been Mishaps

The parade has not been without blips. Mighty Mouse went down in 1956. Popeye’s cap filled with rain and doused parade goers in 1957. It was 1997, though, when high winds led to a balloon (“The Cat in the Hat”) hitting a lamppost, with part of the post crashing into spectators and causing a serious injury to one woman. The incident led to stricter rules for balloon safety.    

The 93rd Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
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This Year’s Route Will Be Traditional

After last year’s “only for TV” edition, this year will see a return to the more traditional full parade route that offers 2.5 miles of public viewing. It kicks off at West 77th Street and Central Park West at 9 a.m. and makes its way downtown to end up in front of the Macy’s flagship by noon. That area, though, offers no public viewing as it hosts the televised performances, press and reserved seating. 

Balloons on the parade route
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This Year’s Edition Has the Numbers

The 2021 edition will feature 30 giant and novelty balloons with newbies including “Ada Twist, Scientist” of Netflix fame, Tiptoe the Reindeer, and Grogu from the Star Wars series “The Mandalorian.” Among the performers, from Rob Thomas to Kelly Rowland, will be special guest Carrie Underwood, along with musical numbers from Broadway shows such as “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” and “Wicked,” performance troupes including Ballet Hispánico and marching bands from far-flung locales. There will also be the floats, the Rockettes, another quirky Macy’s invention known as “balloonicles,” a hybrid cycle feature, and of course, perhaps the most notable floats, the traditional start with Tom Turkey and the finale with Santa Claus.    

Macy's Day Parade
Macy's Day Parade by S Pakhrin (CC BY)

Clowns Are Key to the Parade

Those clowns sprinkled throughout the parade don’t fool around. There’s an actual Macy’s Clown U. led by the Big Apple Circus, where some 900 volunteers are trained to delight the crowd in themed groups that depict city tourists, aviators, baseball all-stars, holiday sweets, and more.      

Balloons on the parade route
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A Sneak Peek Is Possible

On the day before the parade, savvy New Yorkers head to the area outside the American Museum of Natural History for the annual Balloon Inflation. Guests can walk through and watch the process, this year with COVID protocols in place.   

Rose Parade
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There’s (Kind Of) Some Competition

Sure, the Macy’s parade seems to rule the roost when it comes to seasonal parades, but it’s far from the only parade that garners national attention. Among the others are the Tournament of Roses parade, which returns Jan. 1, 2022 to Pasadena, California; the Hollywood Christmas Parade, to be presented Nov. 28 by the City of Los Angeles; and countless local parades in cities and towns across the country including the nation’s oldest, the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade, which actually made its debut in 1920.     

The 93rd Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
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The Parade Can Be a Teaching Tool

The Macy’s team has put an educational spin on the parade, with its website offering extensive “behind the scenes” information and interactive elements ideal for schools and programs devoted to S.T.E.A.M. Videos, for example, show how the parade team members, “incorporate science, technology, engineering, art and math concepts to create a magical experience.” For fun (and all ages), there are also countless downloadable word searches, crosswords, Sudoku games, coloring pages and even Macy’s place cards.

Macy's parade 2019
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The Parade Gives Back

Since its start, there have been charitable elements to the Macy’s parade. This year, for example, the parade has partnered with Meals on Wheels to deliver healthy meals to city seniors in a one-of-a-kind parade-themed delivery truck complete with clown volunteers. The parade organization also offers free tickets for grandstand seating to nonprofit organizations and donates the parade jackets worn by officials to nonprofit partners in New York City. Programs also range from band grants to scholarships, all reflecting the volunteer spirit (represented by some 4,500 volunteers) needed to put on this landmark annual event.    

Macy's Day Parade Pajamas
Macy's, Inc.

This Isn’t Your Grandma’s Parade

Of course, many parade-goers want a souvenir. After all, you’ve heard “Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt”? Well, Macy’s gets into the action with its 2021 limited-edition Thanksgiving Day Parade collection, which includes everything from family pajama sets to plush toys, ornaments to wall art, musical snow globes to jigsaw puzzles, totes to a “20-pan eyeshadow palette.” And, of course, the parade has its own hashtag, #macysparade.


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