A photographic history of America’s Thanksgiving parade

Tom Turkey (pictured above) is the parade’s most famous float and always opens the show, sponsored by Macy’s department store. Here is a brief history of the parade in pictures:

Live or make believe?

Handlers hold crocodile balloons next to trolley cars during the parade (© Bettmann/Getty Images)
(© Bettmann/Getty Images)

The first parade was held in 1924, and in the first year it featured live animals from the Central Park Zoo. In 1927, officials replaced the large helium balloon in the shape of an animal, a change that must have made things a little easier.

Today, the parade attracts 3.5 million people along the 4-kilometer route and millions more who watch the spectacle on screen. 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.

child appeal

Photo left: People riding on a parade float.  Right photo: Arms around a Mickey Mouse balloon (Two photos Courtesy of Macy's)
(Both photos courtesy of Macy’s)

Parade floats in the early years mirrored Macy’s Christmas window displays of popular nursery rhymes, such as Little Miss Muffet, shown on the left. In 1934, Walt Disney and Tony Sarg, the German American puppeteer and creative director of the parade, helped Mickey Mouse make his grand debut as one of the parade’s inflatable balloons. Twenty-five handlers – dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, of course – accompanied the 12-metre balloon during the parade.

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Part clerk, part clown

People dressed as clowns wave to children throughout the parade (© George Torrie/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)
(© George Torrie/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

Store officials initially decided to hold a parade to attract shoppers to Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street. Macy’s employees, many of whom are first-generation European immigrants, suggested it, recalling the festivals they knew and loved in Europe. During the first parade in 1924, our store employees participated as clowns, cowboys, knights and other characters.

Clowns, like this one from the 1949 parade, have always engaged with the audience, adding excitement to the audience.

65 years of kicking

Dancers kick their feet together (© MIchael Stewart/Getty Images)
(© Michael Stewart/Getty Images)

Members of the all-female precision dance company The Radio City Rockettes have performed in the parade since 1957. Over the years, New York-based dancers have also kicked up their heels for soldiers overseas during wars and at presidential inaugurations. Here they do a dance routine in the 2014 parade.

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Rows and rows of virtuosos

Members of the marching band perform in the parade (© Andres Kudacki / AP Image)
(© Andres Kudacki/AP Image)

High school and college marching bands from across the United States perform in the parade. Each year, the Macy’s Band Selection Committee decides which bands will perform. Application packages include video footage of the band in action at halftime shows or competitive events. 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.

Mixed media

Character balloons float above the parade (© Seth Wenig / AP Image)
(© Seth Wenig/AP Images)

Float with giant balloons – including Grogu, known as Baby Yoda, a character from Mandalorians television series, and beans comic’ Snoopy, the longest-running giant character balloon in the parade – is heading to Central Park West in 2021.

Star sighting

Musician Jon Batiste rides a float in the parade (© Jeenah Moon / AP Image)
(© Jeenah Moon/AP Images)

This parade is held every year on Thanksgiving Day except for three years during World War II, when the US military needed helium (used in large balloons 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.

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The parade regularly features famous performers, from 96-year-old singer Tony Bennett to 26-year-old actress/singer Zendaya. Above, in 2021, as parade participants can once again interact with spectators along the route, Grammy and Oscar-winning musician Jon Batiste waves from a float honoring the state of Louisiana.

Festive finish

Santa Claus waves from the top of the float (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP Image)
(© Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP Image)

Macy’s has hired an actor Santa to welcome children to its flagship store since the 1860s. And Macy’s even looks big Miracle on 34th Street1947 movie about a girl who found the real Santa Claus – known as Kris Kringle – works 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 gave Santa rounds of hearty applause.


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