A Photographic History of the American Thanksgiving Day Parade

Tom Turkey (pictured above) is the most famous float in the parade and always opens the event, sponsored by the Macy’s department store. Here is a brief history of the parade in pictures:

Live or pretend?

(© Bettmann/Getty Images)

The first parade was held in 1924, and in the early years it featured live animals from the Central Park Zoo. In 1927, civil servants replaced large animal shaped helium balloonsa change that must have made things a little easier.

Today the parade attracts 3.5 million people along the 4 kilometer route and millions more who watch the spectacle unfold on screens. A menagerie of floats, helium balloons, clowns, marching bands, entertainers and celebrities roll, float or descend the city streets.

Above, trainers guide Andy the alligator along the New York City Parade route in 1933.

Call for children

Left photo: People riding an allegorical float.  Right photo: Manipulators surround the Mickey Mouse balloon (both photos courtesy of Macy's)
(Both photos courtesy of Macy’s)

Early years parade floats mirrored Macy’s Christmas window displays containing popular nursery rhymes, such as Little Miss Muffet, shown at left. In 1934, Walt Disney and Tony Sarg, a German-American puppeteer and creative director of the parade, helped Mickey Mouse debut as one of the inflatable balloons in the parade. Twenty-five trainers – dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, of course – escorted the 12-meter ball during the parade.

Part clerk, part clown

Person dressed as a clown waving to children along the parade (© George Torrie/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)
(© George Torrie/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

Store officials originally decided to hold the parade to attract shoppers to Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street. Macy’s employees, many of whom were first-generation European immigrants, suggested it, recalling the festivals they knew and loved in Europe. In the first parade in 1924, store workers participated as clowns, cowboys, knights, and other characters.

Clowns, like this one from the 1949 parade, have always engaged with the audience, adding to the excitement of onlookers.

65 years of kicking

Dancers kicking in unison (© MIchael Stewart/Getty Images)
(© Michael Stewart/Getty Images)

Members of the all-female precision dance company The Radio City Rockettes have performed in the parade since 1957. Over the years, New York-based dancers have also kicked their heels for soldiers overseas in times of war and presidential inaugurations. Here they perform a dance routine during the 2014 parade.

Rows and rows of virtuosos

Members of a marching band during a parade (© Andres Kudacki/AP Images)
(© Andrés Kudacki/AP Images)

Marching bands from high schools and universities from across the United States perform in the parade. Each year, the Macy’s Band Selection Committee decides which bands can perform. The entry package includes video footage of the band in action at a halftime show or competitive event. This year, the parade will feature 12 high school and college marching bands.

Here, the West Virginia University Marching Band marches down Sixth Avenue in the 2016 parade.

Technique Mixte

Character balloons float above the parade (© Seth Wenig/AP Images)
(© Seth Wenig/AP Images)

Giant floats and balloons – including Grogu, popularly known as Baby Yoda, a character from The Mandalorian television series and Peanuts Snoopy from the comics, the oldest giant character balloon in the parade – head to Central Park West in 2021.

Star Observations

Musician Jon Batiste on a float during a parade (© Jeenah Moon/AP Images)
(© Jeenah Moon/AP Images)

The parade was held annually on Thanksgiving Day, except for three years during World War II, when the U.S. military needed helium (used in large balloons floating above the parade) and rubber (used in the tires of parade vehicles) for the war effort. . In 2020, the parade took place but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, without spectators along the route.

The parade regularly features famous performers, from 96-year-old singer Tony Bennett to 26-year-old actress/singer Zendaya. Above, in 2021, as parade participants were once again able to interact with viewers along the route, Jon Batiste, Grammy and Oscar-winning musician waves from a float that honors the state of Louisiana.

Festive finish

Santa Claus waves from the top of the float (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP Images)
(© Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP Images)

Since the 1860s, Macy’s has hired Santa Claus actors to welcome children to its flagship store. And Macy’s even figures prominently in Miracle on 34th Streetthe 1947 film about a girl who finds the real Santa Claus – known as Kris Kringle – working in the store.

In the early years, the parade was called the Macy’s Christmas Parade. And although there has been a greater emphasis on Thanksgiving Day in recent years, tradition still holds that Santa Claus closes the parade to usher in the holiday season. Many children know that you have to watch the whole parade to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus, and the New York crowd gives Santa Claus a hearty applause.

About Monty S. Maynard

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