On November 27, 1924, a New York tradition was born as Macy’s employees took to the streets to celebrate the first Macy’s Christmas Parade. Yes, you read correctly. The first Thanksgiving Day Parade wasn’t intended for Thanksgiving at all. It was designed to officially begin the Christmas shopping season. Also, Macy’s didn’t come up with the idea. They acquired it.
Before the Macy’s parade, New York City had its own bizarre Thanksgiving tradition that sounded more like trick-or-treating. Children would dress up as vagabonds, paint their faces and go throughout their neighborhoods asking “Anything for Thanksgiving” hoping to get pieces of candy or fruit.
The tradition of Thanksgiving Day parades started with the Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia in 1920. Louis Bamberger, the owner of Bamberger’s Department Store in Newark, New Jersey, started a similar parade soon after. It was said that the trend of holiday parades started because the European immigrants who worked in these department stores wanted to celebrate their new American heritage during the uniquely American holiday. In their homelands, this traditionally was done with parades featuring floats, clowns, and musicians.
After going public in 1922 and acquiring local department stores, Macy’s decided to take on Bamberger’s parade in 1924. They moved it to New York and gave it a Christmas theme. The intended highlight was Santa Claus, who would enter Herald Square at the very end of the parade. Once there, he would be crowned “King of the Kiddies” and take his holiday home on the fourth floor of Macy’s surrounded by the Fairyfolk Frolics of Wondertown, a holiday-themed area of the store that would open from 9 AM in the morning till midnight throughout the Christmas season.
There were no large helium balloons at the time. They didn’t arrive until 1928. The main attraction was animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. These included elephants, monkeys, bears, and camels. Floats were also a staple of the parade with a depiction of Little Miss Muffet being Macy’s first. Also brass bands clowns and “comedy acts” were included in the line-up as well.
The parade’s original route was very different from the one we know today. It began on 145 Street and Convent Avenue, made its way down to Manhattan Avenue, and, upon hitting 110th Street, went south on Broadway to Columbus Circle where it continued down Broadway to 34th Street. In total, the parade route was six miles as compared to the much shorter two-and-a-half mile route of the modern parade. Macy estimated that over 250,000 lined the route to cheer on the first parade, which was deemed to be a huge success. So much so that the next day they took out ads in all major New York newspapers telling everyone to save the date for next Thanksgiving because the Macy’s Christmas Parade was going to be a holiday tradition from that point on.
The Parade, now in its 91st year, did not take place for three years (1942-1944) during World War II because the helium, rubber, and manpower needed to drive the event were diverted to the war effort. The one feature of the parade that has not changed in 92 years is Santa. He has ended every Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with his arrival in Herald Square.