Holiday Traditions and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade

Wednesday, November 27, 2019 by Stephanie Luciano

Thanksgiving—comfortable or contentious, there are some things we've come to expect from this day each year. Whether it's the presidential turkey pardon, watching the big game, or eating too much, many families have time-honored traditions and individual ways to celebrate.

A man and women embrace at a table set for dinner.
Lucas Pritchard and Lucas Monroe. [“Top Banana” party.] 1951. Museum of the City of New York. 80.103.2818

But some of the things we consider Thanksgiving staples, like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, weren't originally part of the holiday at all. 

When Abraham Lincoln created the national holiday in 1863, states began to develop their own ways to celebrate. Here in New York, we began Ragamuffin Day. This tradition, which started around 1870, sounds a lot like our idea of modern Halloween.

Drawing of a group of children in fancy dress costumes
Don Freeman (1908-1978). Dress Up Day. ca. 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.13.19

Children would get dressed up, though not in what we might consider typical costumes, or anything as fancy as the kids in this drawing, but as caricatures of beggars. They would stop and ask neighbors or people on the street for goodies and were usually rewarded with pennies, apples, or pieces of candy. Around the time of the Great Depression, this practice started to fall our of favor, and evolved into the Ragamuffin Parade, also held on Thanksgiving day, which was eventually overshadowned by the Macy's Parade. 

While the Macy's parade isn't the only Thanksgiving Day parade, it is considered one of the world’s largest, and among the oldest—it began in 1924. The first year, three balloons, four bands, and zoo animals from the Central Park Zoo walked from 145th Street and Convent Avenue to Macy’s on 34th Street and Broadway.

A crowd watches a sea lion at the Central Park Zoo
Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). Central Park Zoo, seal exhibit. ca. 1934-1950. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.2.23480

Though organizers hoped the real animals, like tigers, camels, elephants, and donkeys would engertain the younger audience, they acutally frightened the children. They experimented with different things to replace this spectacle, and created the first giant balloon depicting Felix the Cat, which was  propped up above ground by long, thin sticks

In 1927, balloons started to make a larger appearance with the help of helium, allowing them to soar down the crowds of New York City.

Large balloon of a clown floats about city streets, with a crowd of onlookers below.
Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. 1945. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.8.240 ©VanVechtenTrust

At the end of the parade, these giant balloons were released into the air. Macy’s began offering rewards of money to anyone with a returned balloon. This experiment did not last long, and for good reason! The tradition came to an end when a loose balloon became entangled in the propeller of a small plane almost causing an accident. Soon after, balloons were deflated, crated and stored for their next use—a practice that continues through today.

What started off with three balloons has now grown into dozens. It is safe to say that the balloons have a way of tracking the country’s progress and intrests as each era inspires innovation. Over the year’s balloons have included familiar cartoon characters such as Mrs.Katzenjammer, (the first female balloon) Olive Oyl, Snoopy, and more.Despite the parade being an annual event, there was a hold in this NYC tradition. During World War II, not only was there a helium shortage, but Macy’s also donated 250 pounds of rubber to the fight. 1942 to 1944 has been the only years where the celebration has been called off, besides the poor weather conditions in 1971.

Today's Thanksgiving may include mainstays like turkey, stuffing, potatoes and pumpkin pie, and the company of friends and family, but it will also include an integral part of the Holiday in cities across the United States, parades.

By Stephanie Luciano, Education Intern

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