Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Turkey, mashed potatoes, casserole (the kind depends on the family and region), stuffing, cranberry, and rolls are just a few of the Thanksgiving Day foods that we have come to know and love. Along with visiting family, watching movies, playing games, and hunting we have numerous traditions that we take part in and for many watching or attending the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a part of their Thanksgiving Day festivities.
In the 1920s Macy’s Department Store in New York was mostly employed by first generation emigrants who loved America but were accustomed to big celebrations and parades in Europe and wanted to put together such a celebration parade for the holiday season. In 1924 Macy’s and its employees fashioned together three floats (The Old Lady in the Shoe, Miss Muffet, and Red Riding Hood), invited four marching bands, and walked with animals from the Central Park Zoo and the employees dressed as clowns, cowboys, and knights to entertain the crowd. It was unknown how popular the Macy’s Parade would be, originally called the Macy’s Christmas Parade, however to everyone’s surprise nearly 250,000 people lined the streets from Harlem to the Macy’s Department Store off 34th street in Manhattan. Due to its popularity that first year the parade has been held every year since except for 1942-1944 due to World War 2.
The parade itself has been a fluid event ever since 1924; for instance the iconic large balloons that are synonymous with the parade were not introduced until 1927. Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Akron, Ohio helped replace the live animals with large animal-shaped balloons starting with Felix the Cat. After the 1928 parade the balloons were released into the sky with a tag on the balloons indicating that for anyone that returns the balloon to Macy’s they will receive a prize. This stunt did not work out like they had hoped when out of the five balloons that were released in 1931 three landed in Long Island with one being torn to pieces by neighbors fighting for the prize, one landed in the East River and another floated out to sea. Then in 1932 one of the balloons nearly killed a pilot when it caught on his wing and sent him into a tailspin. After this the balloons were no longer released into the air at the end of the parade. By this time nearly 1 million people were lining the streets of New York to watch the parade and something new was needed to entertain people, so in 1934 celebrities started to become an integral element of the show to entertain the crowd. Now every year the hottest singers and Broadway shows perform for the crowd along with celebrities who appear on floats throughout the parade.
Understanding history is about understanding the impact something has on something else. I am always fascinated to discover how something becomes a part of a culture. Although it may not be completely true today Denny’s has been viewed by many as the All-American diner and synonymous for American restaurants. The question I ask is how that happened (something I answered in a previous blog)? The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was clearly growing in popularity throughout the 20s and 30s and the lull of World War 2 showed further how much it was missed when upon its return in 1945 the crowd reached over 2 million enthusiastic New Yorkers. However, why didn’t parades in Philadelphia, Detroit, or elsewhere reach the same level of cultural significance that the Macy’s Parade has reached? We can actually thank George Seaton for that. In 1947 Seaton wrote and directed the movie “Miracle on 34th Street” and in that movie the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was highlighted and even showed actual footage from the previous year’s parade, couple the popularity of that movie with NBC’s first television broadcast of the parade in 1948 and you have a cultural icon being born.
I have to be honest I do not watch the Macy’s Parade every single year however it is not difficult to know how culturally significant the parade has been over the last 85+ years. Every year this time we know one thing is certain and that is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is on and if we watch the excitement will slowly build as the parade ends and Santa Claus says hello to everyone and rings in the Christmas season. To everyone out there I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving and a very Merry Christmas.       

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