Every year more than 3.5 million New Yorkers line the route of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while 50 million television viewers tune in to watch the holiday pageant of giant character balloons, floats, celebrities and marching bands. Although it is now as much of an American tradition as turkey and stuffing, the first Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving morning of 1924 was a much more humble affair that bore the name of an altogether different holiday.
As the United States prospered during the Roaring Twenties, so did New York City’s iconic department store—Macy’s. After going public in 1922, R. H. Macy & Co. started to acquire competitors and open regional locations. Macy’s flagship store in Manhattan’s Herald Square did such a brisk business that it expanded in 1924 to cover an entire city block stretching from Broadway to Seventh Avenue along 34th Street.
To showcase the opening of the “World’s Largest Store” and its 1 million square feet of retail space at the start of the busy holiday shopping season, Macy’s decided to throw New York a parade on Thanksgiving morning. In spite of its timing, the parade was not actually about Thanksgiving at all but the next major holiday on the calendar—Christmas. Macy’s hoped its “Christmas Parade” would whet the appetites of consumers for a holiday shopping feast.
The idea of a store-sponsored Thanksgiving parade did not originate with Macy’s, however, but with Philadelphia’s Gimbel Brothers Department Store, which first staged a Thanksgiving procession in 1920 with 50 people, 15 cars and a fireman dressed as Santa Claus who ushered in the Christmas shopping season. Like Macy’s, J.L. Hudson’s Department Store in Detroit also planned a similar event in 1924. In New York, however, the only Thanksgiving parade that had previously passed through the city’s streets was its peculiar—and to many, annoying—tradition of children painting their faces and donning tattered clothes to masquerade as “ragamuffins” who asked “Anything for Thanksgiving?” as they begged door-to-door for pennies, apples and pieces of candy.
At 9 a.m. on the sunlit morning of November 27, 1924, Macy’s gave the children of New York a particularly special Thanksgiving treat as a police escort led the start of the parade from the intersection of 145th Street and Convent Avenue. The early-morning start time of “Macy’s Christmas Parade” overlapped with many church services, but it gave spectators plenty of time to make it to the afternoon’s big football game between Syracuse and Columbia universities at the Polo Grounds.
Macy’s had promised parade-goers “a marathon of mirth” in its full-page newspaper advertisements. While the parade route may not have extended over 26 miles, its 6-mile length certainly made for a long hike for those marching from Harlem to Herald Square. The spectators who stood four and five people deep, however, could watch it all in just a matter of minutes since the modest street pageant stretched the length of only two city blocks.
To match the nursery-rhyme theme in Macy’s Christmas window display in 1924, floats featured Mother Goose favorites such as the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Little Miss Muffet and Little Red Riding Hood. Macy’s employees dressed as clowns, cowboys and sword-wielding knights. A menagerie of animals on loan from the Central Park Zoo—including bears, elephants, camels and monkeys—offered a circus-like atmosphere as four bands provided the soundtrack to the festive march. Bringing up the rear of the parade was a float bearing the guest of honor—Santa Claus—sitting in his reindeer-driven sleigh on top of a mountain of ice.
By noontime, the parade finally arrived at its end in front of Macy’s Herald Square store where 10,000 people cheered Santa as he descended from his sleigh. After being crowned “King of the Kiddies,” Kris Kringle scaled a ladder and sat on a gold throne mounted on top of the marquee above the store’s new 34th Street entrance near Seventh Avenue. With a bellow from his trumpet, Santa sounded the signal to unveil “The Fair Frolics of Wondertown,” the Christmastime window display designed by artist and puppeteer Tony Sarg. As soon as the police lowered their crowd-control lines, children rushed to the 75-foot-long window to see the miniature Mother Goose marionette characters on moving belts frolicking in their own parade in front of a castle-like façade.
Although the parade garnered only two sentences the following day in the New York Herald—the same amount of ink given to the charity dinner and screening of the “The Ten Commandments” for the prisoners at the Sing Sing correctional facility—it proved such a smash that Macy’s announced in a newspaper advertisement the following morning that it would stage the parade again the following Thanksgiving. “We did not dare dream its success would be so great,” stated the advertisement.
Macy’s Christmas Parade quickly became a New York holiday tradition to the joy of nearly all except the zoo animals, who did not revel in the six-mile journey, and the marchers treading carefully in their wake. The roars and growls from the tired animals frightened young spectators, so they were replaced by less-surly and more-obedient character balloons, which quickly became the parade’s signature attractions after the debut of a helium-filled Felix the Cat, designed by Sarg, in 1927.
While the route has been scaled back to a length of two-and-a-half miles, the size of the parade itself has blossomed with dozens of balloons, marching bands, celebrities and cheerleaders. Although it is now called the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” Santa Claus remains the show-stopper, and his arrival in Herald Square still heralds in the Christmas season in New York.