16 Fun Facts About the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

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This Thursday, Macy's will send its 92st Thanksgiving Day Parade down the streets of Manhattan—a spectacle more than 50 million people tune in to watch from the comfort of their homes. Here are a few things you might not have known about the iconic holiday event.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY CHRISTMAS-THEMED.


Macy's

The “Macy’s Christmas Parade” debuted in 1924 as a way to celebrate the expansion of Macy’s flagship Manhattan store, which would now cover an entire city block and became the self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Store.” According to The New York Times, “the majority of participants were employees of the stores. There were, however, many professional entertainers who kept the spectators amused as they passed by. Beautiful floats showed the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe, Little Miss Muffet, and Red Riding Hood. There were also bears, elephants, donkeys and bands, making the procession resemble a circus parade.” (The animals came from the Central Park Zoo.)


Macy's

The parade began at 145th Street and Convent Avenue and continued down to Macy’s huge store on 34th Street. All along the route, according to the Times, the parade “was welcomed by such crowds that a large force of policemen had its hands full maintaining the police lines.” Some 10,000 people watched Santa—who rode on a float designed to look like a sled being pulled by reindeer—be crowned “King of the Kiddies,” then enjoyed the unveiling of the store’s Christmas windows. The parade was such a success that Macy’s decided to make it an annual event; it would become the Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1927.

2. THERE WERE OBJECTIONS EARLY ON.

Two years after the first parade, the Allied Patriotic Societies protested, telling Macy’s that it shouldn’t hold the event on Thanksgiving because “it would interfere with Thanksgiving Day worship,” according to The New York Times, and because it wasn’t appropriate for a commercial company to hold a parade on the holiday. If the company didn’t acknowledge its protest, the association declared that it would go to the police commissioner and ask him to revoke the parade permit.

Percy Straus, who worked for Macy’s, attended the association's meeting. He pointed out that there was no blatant advertising in the parade, and that the word Macy was used just once. “He also said that Thanksgiving morning was the only time when children would be free to watch and traffic would be light enough to permit the parade’s passing,” the Times wrote. “It would be over, he thought, in ample time to permit churchgoing.” Straus’s justifications didn’t make a difference; the association voted to protest the parade, but its efforts to get the event canceled were unsuccessful—the parade went on as usual.

3. THE CHARACTER BALLOONS WERE INSPIRED BY A FLOAT.


Macy's

The Balloonatics float—which, as the name would suggest, was festooned with balloons—inspired the creation of the character balloons. These days, the people who design the balloons are called “Balloonatics.”

4. THE CHARACTER BALLOONS DEBUTED IN 1927.


Macy's

Three years after the first annual parade, balloons made their debut. According to The New York Times, the parade included “a ‘human behemoth’ 21 feet tall … [that] had to crawl under the elevated structure at 66th and Broadway,” “a ‘dinosaur’ 60 feet long attended by a bodyguard of prehistoric cavemen,” and “a 25-foot dachshund [that] swayed along in the company of gigantic turkeys and chickens and ducks of heroic size.” Also in the parade that year, but not mentioned in the Times, was the first character balloon, Felix the Cat.

5. FOR A FEW YEARS, THERE WERE “BALLOON RACES.”

The first year, Macy’s had no plans for deflating its balloons, so they were released into the air, where they quickly popped. But that all changed in the 1928 parade.

That year, Macy’s released five huge figures—an elephant, a 60-foot tiger, a plumed bird, an “early bird” trailing worms, and a 25-foot-high ghost—into the sky. While the majority of the balloons in the parade used regular air to stay afloat, these figures were built around helium balloon bodies, which were designed to slowly leak the gas. As The New York Times explained, “The figures are expected to rise to 2000 to 3000 feet and are timed by a slow leak to stay aloft for a week to 10 days. By then it is expected they will have alighted in various parts of the country.” Whoever returned the balloons would receive a $100 reward.

The first balloon to land was the Tiger, which the Times reported landed on the roof of a Long Island home: “A tug of war ensued for its possession … neighbors and motorists rushed up from all directions. The rubberized silk skin burst into dozens of fragments.”

By December 1, four of the balloons had landed (one in the East River, where it broke in two and was pursued by tugboats). The ghost, however, was “reported as having been sighted moving out to sea over the Rockaways with a flock of gulls in pursuit,” according to the Times. The parade held its last balloon race in 1932 after two incidents involving airplanes. In 1931, aviator Colonel Clarence Duncan Chamberlin snagged a balloon in mid-air and towed it back to his home and received $25 as a reward. In 1932, according to some sources, a 22-year-old woman taking flying lessons purposefully flew the plane she was piloting into one of the released balloons. It was only the quick action of her instructor that kept the plane from crashing.

6. MICKEY MOUSE MADE HIS DEBUT IN 1934.


Macy's

Macy’s designers collaborated with Walt Disney to create the 40-foot-high, 23-foot-wide balloon, which was “held down to Earth by twenty-five husky attendants,” according to The New York Times. The parade that year also featured the first balloon based on a real person—comedian and vaudeville star Eddie Cantor.

7. THE PARADE WAS HALTED DURING WORLD WAR II.

There were rubber and helium shortages, so Macy’s canceled the parade from 1942 to 1944. The company deflated its rubber balloons—which weighed 650 pounds total—and donated them to the government. (These days, the balloons are made of polyurethane fabric.) The parade returned in 1945, and in 1946 got a new route, which started at 77th Street and Central Park West and ended at 34th Street—half the length of the previous route.

8. A HELIUM SHORTAGE IN 1958 ALMOST GROUNDED THE PARADE’S BALLOONS.

Initially, it looked like a helium shortage would keep Macy’s parade balloons from flying in 1958. But the company collaborated with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and the rigging specialists Traynor & Hansen Corporation to come up with a creative solution: According to The New York Times, the balloons were filled with air and dangled from “large, mobile construction derricks.” The paper also described a test of the method:

“A motorized derrick with a 70-foot boom had a specially built wood-and-steel hanger attached to the end of the wire hoisting cable. The Toy Soldier, weighing more than 200 pounds deflated, was stretched full-length on a canvas carpet. Limp and sickly looking, it was not the robust figure children and adults are used to seeing. Lines from the body of the balloon were attached to the hanger while two vacuum cleaners, working in reverse, blew in air. An hour of blowing filled the figure out nicely and the boom hoisted it into the air.”

The balloons have only been grounded once since 1927, when winds during the 1971 parade were too strong for them to fly.

9. THE FLOATS FOLD DOWN SMALL.


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Since 1968, the floats have been designed by artists at Macy’s Parade Studio in New Jersey. The floats can be up to 40 feet tall and 28 feet wide—but they fold down into a 12-foot-by-8-foot box to make the journey through the Lincoln Tunnel.

By the way: The parade features float-based balloons called falloons—a combination of “float” and “balloon”—which were introduced sometime around 1990. There are also balloon vehicles called balloonicles (a portmanteau of “balloon” and “vehicle”), which made their debut in 2004. Trycaloons—balloons on tricycles—hit the parade in 2011.

10. ALL OF THE BALLOONS ARE DESIGNED IN-HOUSE BY MACY’S ARTISTS—AND THEY’RE NOT CHEAP.

Macy’s balloon designers—dubbed “balloonatics”—begin up to a year before the parade with pencil sketches of each character, analyzing not just aesthetics but also aerodynamics and engineering. The sketches are followed by scaled-down clay models that are used to create casts of the balloons. Two miniature replicas are created: One that’s marked with technical details, and one that’s painted in the balloon’s colors. The models are immersed in water to figure out how much helium they’ll need to float. Finally, the schematics are scanned by computer, and the fabric pieces are cut and heat-sealed to create the various air chambers of the balloon. Once the balloon is created, it's painted while inflated (otherwise, the paint will crack), then undergoes leak testing and indoor and outdoor flight tests. No wonder it costs at least $190,000 for a first-time balloon (after a first appearance, it costs $90,000 a year after that). The balloons are completed by Halloween and stored along a wall in the design studio's balloon warehouse.

11. THE BALLOONS ARE DIRECTED BY “BALLOON PILOTS.”

They’re the people walking backwards in front of the balloon, directing a crew of volunteers holding guide ropes (called “bones”) and two Toro utility vehicles. Macy’s offers training three times a year for pilots. “We offer the pilots and captains the chance to go around the field a couple times with the balloon a couple of times and practice the instruction and guidance,” Kelly Kramer, a longtime Macy’s employee and balloon pilot, told Vanity Fair in 2014. “We also have classroom training.” It’s also important for balloon pilots to train physically; if not, “The next morning you wake up and you almost cannot get out of bed because your calves seize up,” Kramer said. “I walked backwards in my neighborhood at night.”

12. PEOPLE WHO WANT TO VOLUNTEER TO WALK WITH THE BALLOONS HAVE TO MEET CERTAIN REQUIREMENTS.


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It takes 90 minutes to inflate the big balloons, which, on average, contain 12,000 cubic feet of helium, which is capable of lifting nearly 750 pounds (or filling 2500 bathtubs). Each balloon requires up to 90 handlers, who have to weigh at least 120 pounds and be in good health.

The balloons are inflated the day before the parade outside the American Museum of Natural History, then topped off the day of. Because helium expands in the sun, the balloons are typically left slightly underinflated.

13. ONE CHARACTER HAS APPEARED MORE THAN ANY OTHER.


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That honor goes to Snoopy, who debuted in the 1968 parade and has had a grand total of seven balloons. The beloved character has made 39 appearances on and off through 2015, but in 2016, he was replaced by Charlie Brown.

14. SOME WEIRD BALLOONS HAVE BEEN FEATURED IN THE PARADE.

Among them were the Nantucket Sea Monster (1937), the wrestler The Terrible Turk (which memorably hit a traffic pole and split in half in 1931), a Pinocchio with a 44-foot-long nose (1937), a couple of two-headed balloons (1936), an ice cream cone and a jack ‘o lantern (1945), a space man (1952), Smokey Bear (1969), cereal spokesanimal Linus the Lion (1973), and more.

15. WIND AND GIANT BALLOONS ARE NOT A GOOD COMBINATION.

There are many things that pose threats to the parade balloons: electric wires (which caused the Felix the Cat balloon to burst into flames when it hit them in 1931), rain (which filled the Popeye balloon’s hat with water, which got dumped on spectators along the parade route in 1957), tree branches (which once tore off Superman’s hand). But a balloon’s greatest enemy is wind: In 1993, wind caused the Sonic the Hedgehog balloon to hit a lamppost; the light fell and injured one. In 1997, police stabbed a Pink Panther balloon when wind sent it careening; that same year, the wind made an oversized Cat in the Hat balloon hit a streetlight, sending two people to the hospital with head injuries (after the incident, the parade instituted new size rules). In 2005, an M&M balloon got tangled on a streetlamp, causing the lamp to fall and injuring two, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Each balloon flies at a height determined by its size and weather conditions, and the wind poses such a threat that if sustained wind speeds or gusts are too strong, the balloons won’t fly.

16. DEFLATING THE BALLOONS TAKES JUST 15 MINUTES.

After the parade is over, the balloons are deflated behind Macy’s on Seventh Avenue. First, the volunteers open up zippers on the sides of the balloons; when most of the helium has escaped, they lie on the balloon to get all the helium out, then roll the character up from front to back. The balloon is then put in storage until the next parade.

Why Mother's Day Founder Anna Jarvis Later Fought to Have the Holiday Abolished

A portrait of Mother's Day founder Anna Jarvis.
A portrait of Mother's Day founder Anna Jarvis.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Years after she founded Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis was dining at the Tea Room at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia. She saw they were offering a "Mother’s Day Salad." She ordered the salad and when it was served, she stood up, dumped it on the floor, left the money to pay for it, and walked out in a huff. Jarvis had lost control of the holiday she helped create, and she was crushed by her belief that commercialism was destroying Mother’s Day.

During the Civil War, Anna's mother, Ann Jarvis, cared for the wounded on both sides of the conflict. She also tried to orchestrate peace between Union and Confederate moms by forming a Mother's Friendship Day. When the elder Jarvis passed away in 1905, her daughter was devastated. She would read the sympathy cards and letters over and over, taking the time to underline all the words that praised and complimented her mother. Jarvis found an outlet to memorialize her mother by working to promote a day that would honor all mothers.

On May 10, 1908, Mother's Day events were held at the church where Ann Jarvis taught Sunday School in Grafton, West Virginia, and at the Wanamaker’s department store auditorium in Philadelphia. Anna did not attend the event in Grafton, but she sent 500 white carnations—her mother’s favorite flower. The carnations were to be worn by sons and daughters in honor of their own mothers, and to represent the purity of a mother’s love.

Spreading the Word

Mother’s Day quickly caught on because of Anna Jarvis’s zealous letter-writing and promotional campaigns across the country and the world. She was assisted by well-heeled backers like John Wanamaker and H.J. Heinz, and she soon devoted herself full-time to the promotion of Mother’s Day.

In 1909 several senators mocked the very idea of a Mother’s Day holiday. Senator Henry Moore Teller (D-CO) scorned the resolution as "puerile," "absolutely absurd," and "trifling." He announced, "Every day with me is a mother's day." Senator Jacob Gallinger (R-NH) judged the very idea of Mother's Day to be an insult, as though his memory of his late mother "could only be kept green by some outward demonstration on Sunday, May 10."

A pile of white carnations
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The backlash didn't deter Jarvis. She enlisted the help of organizations like the World’s Sunday School Association, and the holiday sailed through Congress with little opposition in 1914.

The floral industry wisely supported Jarvis’s Mother’s Day movement. She accepted their donations and spoke at their conventions. With each subsequent Mother’s Day, the wearing of carnations became a must-have item. Florists across the country quickly sold out of white carnations around Mother’s Day; newspapers reported stories of carnation hoarding and profiteering. The floral industry later came up with an idea to diversify sales by promoting the practice of wearing red or bright flowers in honor of living mothers, and white flowers for deceased moms.

"Sentiment, Not Profit"

Jarvis soon soured on the commercial interests associated with the day. She wanted Mother’s Day “to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” Beginning around 1920, she urged people to stop buying flowers and other gifts for their mothers, and she turned against her former commercial supporters. She referred to the florists, greeting card manufacturers and the confectionery industry as “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers, and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest, and truest movements and celebrations.”

In response to the floral industry, she had thousands of celluloid buttons made featuring the white carnation, which she sent free of charge to women’s, school, and church groups. She attempted to stop the floral industry by threatening to file lawsuits and by applying to trademark the carnation together with the words “Mother’s Day” (though she was denied the trademark). In response to her legal threats, the Florist Telegraph Delivery (FTD) association offered her a commission on the sales of Mother’s Day carnations, but this only further enraged her.

Jarvis’s attempts to stop the florists’ promotion of Mother’s Day with carnations continued. In 1934, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Mother’s Day. They used a painting colloquially known as Whistler’s Mother for the image, by artist James Whistler. Jarvis was livid after she saw the resulting stamp because she believed the addition of the vase of carnations was an advertisement for the floral industry.

A young girl gives her mom a handmade Mother's Day card
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Jarvis’s ideal observance of Mother’s Day would be a visit home or writing a long letter to your mother. She couldn’t stand those who sold and used greeting cards: “A maudlin, insincere printed card or ready-made telegram means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world.”

She added: “Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.”

Going Rogue

Jarvis fought against charities that used Mother’s Day for fundraising. She was dragged screaming out of a meeting of the American War Mothers by police and arrested for disturbing the peace in her attempts to stop the sale of carnations. She even wrote screeds against Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise money (for charities that worked to combat high maternal and infant mortality rates, the very type of work Jarvis’s mother did during her lifetime).

In one of her last appearances in public, Jarvis was seen going door-to-door in Philadelphia, asking for signatures on a petition to rescind Mother’s Day. In her twilight years, she became a recluse and a hoarder.

Jarvis spent her last days deeply in debt and living in the Marshall Square Sanitarium, a now-closed mental asylum in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She died on November 24, 1948. Jarvis was never told that her bill for her time at the asylum was partly paid for by a group of grateful florists.

This story originally appeared in 2012.

7 Mother's Day Sales to Take Advantage of Before the Holiday

iStock.com/CatLane
iStock.com/CatLane

Still trying to figure out what to buy your mom for Mother's Day this year? Before May 12 rolls around, check out these sales that will help you get mom the perfect gift for less. And if you've already bought your mom a gift, well, there's no harm in getting yourself one, too.

1. Sur La Table

If your mom loves to cook and host, head to Sur La Table. The kitchen store is offering 20 percent off Staub cast iron cookware until May 13. It's also got longer-running sales as well—until May 20, you can get up to 70 percent off Sur La Table private label cookware and up to 40 percent off Nordic Ware bakeware. Nothing says Mother's Day like a new set of cake pans or a cast iron cocotte. (Don't be afraid to pick up a new set of dishes for yourself, too—we're sure your mom wouldn't mind.)

Find it: Sur La Table

2. Overstock.com

In advance of Mother's Day, Overstock.com is offering discounts on watches, jewelry, footwear, and more with mom in mind. Personally, we'd like to gift our mothers one of these amazingly whimsical cat watches, but for moms with more highbrow taste, there are plenty of other elegant options on deep discount. 

Find it: Overstock.com

3. Today Is Art Day

For moms who love art, science, and history, Today Is Art Day's collectible figurines offer a way to show off her favorite icons. She can prop the likenesses of Frida Kahlo, Gustav Klimt, Marie Curie, and more on her desk, or grab the brand's art-museum-themed board game for some family fun. You can get 15 percent off your purchase using the code MOTHER until May 12.

Find it: Today Is Art Day

4. Macy's

Macy's wellness-focused Goodfull brand has a lot of mom-worthy items on sale right now, including cookware, knives, kitchen appliances (we can't resist a KitchenAid stand mixer), plate sets, bed and bath products, and more. We are especially tempted by the Aerogarden countertop herb garden kit, which features automatic LED lighting and watering reminders. It's $110 off through May 12. You can also get an extra 10 to 20 percent off select sale items with the code MOM.

Find it: Macy's

5. Coach

If your mom is a fashion maven, Coach is offering significant discounts on bags, shoes, and other fashionable goods for the holiday. (While we don't exactly recommend spending more than $100 buying your mom a luxury leather keychain in the shape of a weiner dog, we also wouldn't hate it.) Use the code MOM19 to get up to 30 percent off.

Find it: Coach

6. Amazon

Whether your mom is an Alexa acolyte or a smart home skeptic, Amazon's probably got a device on sale for her. The rarely-on-sale, wildly popular Kindle Paperwhite is $40 off right now (just $90 for the most basic version). The regular Kindle (which has a lower-resolution screen and no backlight) is also on sale starting at $70. Amazon is also offering deals on Kindle Fire tablets, Ring Alarm systems, Echo smart speakers, and more.

Find it: Amazon

7. CompetitiveCyclist.com

Whether your mom is a weekend warrior or just likes to take the occasional group ride, you can get great deals on cycling gear and equipment from CompetitiveCyclist.com. With bikes, apparel, and accessories targeted at road cyclists, mountain bikers, and triathlon athletes, there's plenty to choose from. Get mom some waterproof apparel for her spring rides, invest in some nice sunglasses for her summer workouts, or go ahead and help her upgrade to her dream bike. Use the code 21VERONA for 21 percent off full-price items from now until June 2.

Find it: CompetitiveCyclist.com

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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