Want proof of the impact and value of immigrants in America? You can thank these tired, poor, huddled masses who yearned to be free on Thanksgiving while you are watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Without the influx of immigrants into America during the turn of the 20th century, your only viewing option on Thanksgiving morning might be Regis and Kelly. Macy’s was already a successful New York City store by the early 1920s and they had achieved that success on the backs of employees whose parents had arrived during the great tide of immigration in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Sensing the value and importance of the immigrant stock to America, they decided to bring a little Old World enthusiasm and tradition to the New World by celebrating Thanksgiving in much the same fashion as European festivals celebrated national holidays.
In 1924, the Macy’s on 34th street that would one day be immortalized on film as the site of a Christmas miracle witnessed the arrival of these sons and daughters of immigrants dressed in flamboyant costumes. The parade featured floats not too different from those seen today, as well as Central Park Zoo animals, and musicians. The very first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ended exactly as it does today and as it has always concluded, with the arrival of the jolly fat elf. No, not John Goodman, but Santa Claus. John Goodman-I mean Santa Claus-was coronated with the title King of the Kiddies as he stood on the balcony at Macy’s store entrance. The event was an enormously popular success with an estimated 250,000 people showing up to watch. Little wonder that Macy’s decided to make it an annual tradition.
One primary difference between the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade we know and love today and that first parade was the absence of the traditional helium balloons. Learning that having actual live animals in a parade was not the best decision in the world, by 1927 the transformation from real to oversized animals had begun. Felix the Cat was the big balloon star that year, but instead of helium he was filled with oxygen. The effect was certainly less than what it was the next year when helium was introduced. Another difference between the early days of the Macy’s parade and today is the lost tradition of releasing the balloons and letting them soar and float for days before finally landing. Anyone lucky enough to find one of these landed balloons could return it for cash.
The Great Depression was the real boomtime for the Macy’s Parade. Although many families could not afford to actually buy anything for Christmas from Macy’s, the attraction of the parade continued to grow. In some cases the crowd watching the parade at some point alone the route was said to be a million strong. The 1930s also saw the introduction of the first radio broadcasts of the parade.
As it did so many other things, World War put a temporary hold on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but only from 1942-1944. The primary reason for the suspension had to do with the fact that both rubber and helium was necessary for the war effort and could not be wasted on the parade festivities. The film Miracle on 34th Street did much to bring back the excitement to the post-war crowd that it had brought to a Depression-era America desperate for free entertainment. It was when the parade began being televised that actually became a bona fide national Thanksgiving tradition. For the first time those who were not in New York City on Thanksgiving Day actually got to see an entire parade.
With the exception of the World War II interregnum, the Macy’s parade has met its appointed rounds with the fidelity of a mailman, taking place in good and bad weather. Not that there haven’t been some complications. For instance, the giant helium balloons were not a part of the parade in 1971 because of extraordinarily high winds. Then there was the infamous 1997 parade when the Cat in the Hat balloon collided with a streetlight that sent debris raining down to the sidewalk and fractured one spectator’s skull. These and other mishaps have been addressed to make the parade safer, but so far there appears little potential for the parade ever being seriously retooled to remove its most well-loved traditions.