Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade 2019: What is the annual New York pageant and when did it start?

Department store's annual show run since 1924 with giant balloons a favourite fixture

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 27 November 2019 16:35
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Macy’s Day Parade is a fixture of America’s annual Thanksgiving celebrations, watched by thousands on the streets of New York City and millions more on TV at home.

The pageant is known for its floats, costumed revellers, brass bands and enormous balloons of popular cartoon characters like Snoopy, Paddington Bear and The Grinch, always a surreal sight sailing between the skyscrapers.

The world’s largest parade has taken place every year since 1924 when it was first introduced by the famous department chain, whose flagship store sits on 34th Street.

About to take place for the 93rd time, the event no longer features wild animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo as it did in its inaugural year, when the idea was first imported from Newark, New Jersey, where it had first been conceived as a publicity vehicle for the Louis Bamberger store.

Macy’s version, concluding with the welcoming of Santa Claus into Herald Square, quickly eclipsed the preceding Ragamuffin Day, which had seen children go from door-to-door dressed as beggars to collect sweets, a similar practice to Halloween trick-or-treating. The advent of the Great Depression, which left many in real destitution, saw Ragamuffin Day gradually phased out altogether.

Balloons were first introduced to the Macy’s parade at the suggestion of Anthony Frederick Sarg, a marionette performer tasked with designing a seasonal window display. He did so using giant balloon animals custom-built by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, which proved so popular with shoppers they were taken out on tour with the marchers in 1927, replacing the zoo animals.

The first character from popular culture to be featured is thought to have been Felix the Cat in 1931, Mickey Mouse making his debut in 1934.

Following the US entry into the Second World War, the parade was suspended between 1942 and 1944 but was revived for the jubilant Thanksgiving of November 1945 and two years later played a prominent role in the film Miracle on 34th Street about a child’s encounter with the real Santa Claus working at the department store.

It has run smoothly ever since, barring the occasional burst balloon here and there, as when a gust of wind snagged one on a lamppost in Times Square in 2005 and injured two bystanders.

Global events have meant security concerns have been to the fore in recent years, with the NYPD out in force and police sharpshooters stationed on Manhattan rooftops to keep a watchful eye over proceedings that could provide a target for acts of terror.

Organisers will be hoping for a more relaxed atmosphere this year, with Celine Dion, Black Eyed Peas, Billy Porter, Jimmy Fallon and The Roots, Idina Menzel and the cast of Sesame Street all set to appear.

Among the new additions to the roster of balloons will be “Astronaut Snoopy” by Peanuts, “Green Eggs and Ham” by Netflix and “SpongeBob SquarePants & Gary” by Nickelodeon.

A Pikachu balloon floats down 6th Avenue during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York

Only the prospect of high winds this year threaten to derail the fun by blowing the inflatables off course.

The parade takes place between 9am and noon on Thanksgiving morning and its route runs, as ever, south from West 77th Street & Central Park West on the Upper West Side to Macy’s Herald Square in the Garment District.

The big show will be broadcast in its entirety on NBC.

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