Once upon a time, Thanksgiving was a solemn day started by the Pilgrims, a bunch of black-clad killjoys. But then New York threw the day a parade, turning it into an occasion for celebration, with clowns, marching bands, and helium-swollen trademark symbols.
To warm you up for the festive day of food, food, and more food, here are nine things you probably didn’t know about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Rags Seek Riches
In New York, Thanksgiving was once also known as Ragamuffin Day, when children would dress in rags and go begging.
Cotton Beards Come to Harlem
The first Macy’s parade, in 1924, kicked off way, way uptown at 145th Street. (Today it launches from 77th Street and Central Park West.) Incidentally, it didn’t even celebrate Turkey Day—the inaugural march was called the Macy’s Christmas Parade.
The Macy’s parade originally featured live animals, including lions and tigers and elephants, borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. But after steers stampeded one year, live animals were abandoned in favor of papier-mâché beasts and helium-filled balloons.
Set Them Free
In the early years, the giant balloons, in such shapes as a dragon, a toy soldier, an elephant, and Felix the Cat, were released into the sky at the end of the parade. Anyone who found a balloon could claim a $15 reward.
In 1930, after 15 balloons were released, one of them, in the shape of a Katzenjammer Kid, floated past astonished witnesses on the 70th floor of the Empire State Building.
In 1931, an aviator retrieved a pig balloon while flying over the city. A year later, a giant cat balloon sailed into a biplane 5,000 feet above Jamaica Bay, nearly killing the student pilot and her teacher. (Another source says they were attempting to catch the balloon and nearly crashed on Broadway.)
In 1933, Macy’s took a new tack at parade’s end, releasing thousands of small balloons. Two hundred of them had tags offering $1 worth of free merchandise at the store. Balloons were recovered as far away as Nova Scotia.
In 1958, a helium shortage forced the use of cranes to carry air-filled balloons along the parade route.
The Internet made its mark on the parade in 1999 with the introduction of a giant Ask Jeeves balloon.