While waiting for the turkey roasting in the oven for their Thanksgiving dinner, many Americans watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on television or the internet. And millions forgo the comfort of their homes to get in on the excitement by lining the parade route along New York City streets.
Tom Turkey (in the photo above) is the parade’s most famous float and always opens the event, sponsored by Macy’s department store. Here’s a brief history of the parade in pictures:
Live or make-believe?
The first parade was held in 1924, and in the early years it featured live animals from Central Park Zoo. In 1927, officials substituted large helium balloons in the shapes of animals, a change that must have made things a little bit 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, soaring helium balloons, clowns, marching bands, performers and celebrities roll, float or step down the city streets.
Above, handlers guide Andy the Alligator along the New York parade route in 1933.
Parade floats in the early years mirrored Macy’s Christmas window displays of popular nursery rhymes, such as Little Miss Muffet, shown at left. In 1934, Walt Disney and Tony Sarg, a German American puppeteer and the parade’s creative director, helped Mickey Mouse make a grand debut as one of the parade’s inflatable balloons. Twenty-five handlers — dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, of course — escorted the 12-meter balloon during the parade.
Part clerk, part clown
Store officials originally decided to hold the parade to draw 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. During the first parade in 1924, the store’s 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 for spectators.
65 years of kicks
Members of the all-women precision dance company The Radio City Rockettes have performed in the parade since 1957. Over the years, the New York-based dancers have also kicked up their heels for soldiers abroad during wartime and at presidential inaugurations. Here they perform a dance routine in the 2014 parade.
Rows and rows of virtuosos
High school and college marching bands from across the United States perform at the parade. Every year, the Macy’s Band Selection Committee decides which bands get to perform. The application 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 walks along Sixth Avenue during the 2016 parade.
Floats and giant balloons — including Grogu, popularly known as Baby Yoda, a character from The Mandalorian television series, and Peanuts comics’ Snoopy, the parade’s longest-running giant character balloon — head down Central Park West in 2021.
The parade has been held every year on Thanksgiving Day except for three years during World War II, when the U.S. military needed helium (used in large balloon figures floated above the parade) and rubber (used in tires on 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 the 96-year-old singer Tony Bennett to the 26-year-old actress/singer Zendaya. Above, in 2021, as the parade participants once again were able to interact with viewers along the route, Grammy- and Oscar-winning musician Jon Batiste waves from a float that honors the state of Louisiana.
Macy’s has hired Santa actors to welcome children to its flagship store since the 1860s. And Macy’s even looms large in Miracle on 34th Street, the 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 while more emphasis has been put on Thanksgiving Day in recent years, tradition still dictates that Santa Claus closes the parade to usher in the holiday season. Many children know to watch the entire parade to get a glimpse of Santa, and the New York crowd gives Santa rounds of hearty applause.