Thanksgiving Parade: A History of How Balloons Became a Turkey Day Tradition

Every Thanksgiving, Macy’s puts on a parade with giant inflatable cartoon characters, and people love it. Did you ever wonder how balloons floating down 6th Avenue came to be associated with a day that’s about stuffing your face with inordinate amounts of food and bickering with family, and was originally about pilgrims or something?

The parade started in 1924 as a Christmas pageant, organized by employees of R.H. Macy, who, as first generation immigrants, wanted to express their appreciation for America with a celebration popular in Europe, according to Robert M. Grippo and Christopher Hoskins, who literally wrote the book on the parade.

Giant balloons first appeared in 1927: a 60-foot dinosaur, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and a Yule log were some of the attractions, which the press apparently went nuts over.

The parade grew every year and became an entrenched tradition, though it was suspended from 1941-45 because of the need to reserve helium and rubber for World War II.

Every year, new balloons are introduced, usually popular cartoon characters. A big deal was made of 1990’s Bart Simpson balloon. This year, the additions are Hello Kitty and Papa Smurf, which seems a little strange since neither are recent phenomena by any means. Maybe their selection speaks to the much bemoaned lack of quality children’s programming, or maybe people are feeling particularly nostalgic this year. The throwbacks will be joined by a slightly more modern character, The Elf on the Shelf – the main character of a popular 2005 kids book.

Since 2005, there’s also been one balloon adapted from a contemporary artist’s work, which is a pretty cool way for the parade to stay culturally relevant. This year, the artist KAWS’ character, “Companion” the sad clown will join the party.