For many Americans, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is just about as important (if not more) as the turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie that will grace the table later in the day (and then all the leftovers the following day, of course). It’s the babysitter that many moms and dads around the country rely on to keep the kids engaged while the last mad rush to finish the celebratory feast takes place in the kitchen. It’s reason enough on its own to throw a party — a parade party with brunchy cocktails, mouthwatering egg casseroles, and homemade muffins. And this year, there is real reason to celebrate: the parade is celebrating its 85th year.
The planning process for this “party” in the streets of unprecedented proportions begins every year, the day after the previous year’s parade. With new floats, balloons, and entertainment to consider, it takes a full year (and a dedicated team working full-time for a year to pull it off, along with a massive team of volunteers to drive the balloons and floats, and to coordinate the approximately 1,500 kids) to put together. “Little know the effort that goes into planning the parade,” says Amy Kule, the parade’s executive producer, who has been a part of the event for the past 15 years. And after some wayward balloons escaped in 1997, the planning has gone high-tech, too, with pole-mounted anemometers measuring wind speeds by the minute among preparations that The New York Times called “worthy of a large-scale military operation.”
Sure, the Macy’s employees give up their Thanksgiving and personal time for the celebration, but “it’s the best gift we could give to the world,” Kule says. Plus, it’s relevant. “Whatever is happening in the U.S. is reflected in the parade — we bring whatever it is that people love most to life.”
While today’s parade looks very different from the parades of the past — just take a look at these images of Santa in the first processional celebration, or this car, pulled by ladies in white (the latter-day Rockettes?), carrying a Christmas tree — many traditional elements remain the same, says Kule. Santa Claus has been an important part of the parade since the first one in 1924. Tom the Turkey is always the first float in line, kicking off the parade as the ribbon is cut uptown, carrying pilgrims atop his back. While the balloons and floats might be crowd favorites, so too are the Broadway performances. “It all began in the 1970s,” explains Kule, “It’s a way for people to experience the thrill of Broadway without having to make it to New York.”
There is a rich history when it comes to the cast of characters who grace the space above New York’s Sixth Avenue, as well. Live animals were used in the parade’s first years, until Felix the Cat, the first balloon, made of rubber by the Goodyear Tire Company, debuted in 1927. The next year, the balloons were all filled with helium, and released at the parade’s conclusion — a tradition that later ended after some burst high above the ground. Imagine, though, if you were one of the lucky few to find a deflated balloon, with the Macy’s address sewn inside — would you keep it? (Those who did received a gift — probably not the kind of free-gift-with-purchase you might see today, though.) Mickey Mouse, another timeless classic, arrived a couple of years later in 1934. Kermit the Frog is another one of the most popular balloons, and has been a part of the celebration since his debut in 1978; he will be flying again this year, along with Mickey, and newcomer (and one of the biggest balloons) Julius the Monkey.