Kermit the Frog. Mickey Mouse. Snoopy. And many other colorful, giant balloons floating down the streets of New York City.
Over the past century, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has become as much a part of the holiday as the turkey dinner, with balloons serving as the central attraction.
Almost nothing in the parade’s nearly 100-year history has stopped the balloons from being brought to life, save for one exception.
Not the Great Depression, nor a global pandemic – but rather, when the world was brought to a halt by war.
In 1924, the Macy’s department store in New York City decided to try something new.
"All of those employees and colleagues came together and wanted to celebrate and give back to the community," said Rick Pomer, the Creative Director for Macy’s Parade Studio. "So, they hosted the very first parade."
With the Roaring 20s as its backdrop, the first parade was quite the sight with floats and live animals. However, there was one notable absence.
"Balloons were really not part of that first parade," said Pomer.
According to Pomer, the balloons came about sometime after, having been inspired by parade puppets or "giant heads" worn by participants in the first few parades.
"At the time, the operators of the parade saw that people react to that scale of characters, and how can we do it even better, even bigger," said Pomer. "That's why, year after year, we developed new ways to do that with balloons."
For Uncle Sam
In 1942, the parade festivities ground to a halt.
"The one time that, for three years in a row, the parade actually was canceled was during World War II," said Pomer.
According to Pomer, the cancellation was due to resources being put toward the war effort. Two of those resources included helium, the gas used to fill up the balloons, and rubber, which the balloons were made of at the time.
While important components of the parade, helium and rubber were also important for military purposes.
Helium, according to the American Chemical Society, is a national strategic reserve material and it was used to fill blimps that were vital in World War II.
Rubber, another critical material, was in short supply at the time as the natural rubber supply from Southeast Asia was blocked at the beginning of the war.
Macy’s President Jack Straus made the announcement about the parade taking a backseat to the War, while he stood on the steps of New York City’s City Hall.
During this event, Straus deflated a green dragon balloon and then donated the rubber from the balloon to the U.S. military, according to Macy's, Inc.
Making the comeback
After World War II ended in 1945, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ramped back up. Parade organizers added nine new balloons to the line-up that year, and about two million people descended on the Big Apple’s streets to watch the parade.
In the decades since, parade organizers added even more balloons, the balloons themselves grew in size and complexity and the parade started becoming televised, allowing people outside of the city to see the parade.
As the parade has grown, it has also persisted in the face of other wars and worldwide tragedies – not even the global COVID pandemic could stop the parade.
"This parade is run on pure spirit and adrenaline and really relies on all the participants and volunteers who come back year after year," said Pomer. "So, it really does take something monumental to even shift what we do."
"If we've lived through a pandemic and produced the parade, I think we're good, right?" added Pomer.
Pure joy and celebration
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According to Pomer, what makes the Macy’s Parade so special is that it’s part of the tradition for many families across the U.S.
"It's that connective tissue of the holiday and that togetherness that everyone so craves," said Pomer.
The parade is particularly special for Pomer and his colleagues that organize the event.
"It is my favorite day of the year, not only because we're actually living the end of an entire year of putting this together, but that moment, that adrenaline that you feel and the spirit of the crowds right before we step off," said Pomer.
He added, "If you could bottle that up and sell it, it would be an amazing thing because really, it is just pure joy and celebration that keeps us going."