The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is an example of a department store marketing plan gone unprecedentedly, brilliantly right. In 1924, the flourishing New York City R.H. Macy & Co. celebrated its newly expanded store with a Christmas parade, scheduled for Thanksgiving Day as a means of kicking off the holiday gift shopping season. The arrival of Santa Clause at the end of the procession marked the “official” beginning of the Christmas season (and reminded consumers that Macy’s would be a great place to pick up those holiday gifts!)—a beloved tradition that still remains, and one that raises valuable historical questions about local versus national traditions in the Untied States. Klein’s writing tells the story of the day in great detail, and it’s a valuable means of picking up a stronger sense of the day.
Ninety-four years later, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a spectacle of massive proportions, capturing the attention of around 50 million television viewers and another 3.5 million people live from the streets of New York, according to NBC. The procession features celebrities and singers, creatives and dancers and musicians from all over the country—some eccentric, some classic. It’s worthwhile to consider why this parade—an affair that more Americans watch from their television sets than from the streets of New York—is so popularly engrained in so many millions of Americans’ annual celebrations. What does this parade reflect or say about American culture and the kind of warmth and spirit behind the holiday season?
The website visitmacysusa.com writes of the affair in grandiose, larger-than-life descriptors: “jaw dropping;” “will redefine spectacle;” “world class;” “one and only.” Another website provides information suited for the millions of in-person spectators, recommending the best places to watch the parade and learn about conveniently-located coffeehouses, food, and lodging. The site also features a “parade shop,” allowing patrons to purchase souvenirs whether they were present for the occasion or not. It’s all quite the production, and one designed to attract an enthusiastic, in-the-holiday-spirit audience.
The presence of animals in the parade is also a feature that has remained consistent over the years, though the live local zoo animals were phased out with the now-iconic balloon animals (and characters like the Pillsbury Doughboy, eventually) starting in 1927. In the early years of the parade, these balloons were released into the air at the conclusion of the parade, but the tradition was rightfully squashed when airplane pilots entered into competitive pursuit of these up-for-grabs balloons and tragedy nearly ensued. Even today, the massive balloons do present a hazard to onlookers, particularly in cases of high winds and other sorts of inclement weather.
Despite the immense popularity of the Macy’s parade, Philadelphia’s Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade (now called the 6ABC Dunkin’ Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade—a cumbersome name, to be sure) is actually the oldest Thanksgiving parade in the United States. It is allegedly a massive affair for the city of Philadelphia, and there are notable parallels between the New York and Philadelphia parades: the classic presence of floats and balloons and music and a grand Santa Clause conclusion. Why could it be, then, that the parade in New York has so eclipsed the popularity of Philadelphia’s parade? What makes one parade more iconic than another, especially with so many similarities between the two? In particular, it is worthwhile to contemplate the nature of tradition, and why some traditions stay within the boundaries of particular regions and communities and others spread to national proportions.
Tommy Rowan writes reveals that there was a sort of competition between Thanksgiving parades like Macy’s and Gimbel’s, and a resentment that hasn’t quite died even in our modern times. When Gimbel’s took note of the grandeur of the now-infamous New York City parade, Philadelphia parade organizers felt pressured to build up their parade to hold its own with Macy’s. The article concludes with the words of a Philadelphia Historical Society employee: “It was a hit from day one, and started a string of copycat parades (Are you listening New York City?)” Though I haven’t had the chance to ask a Philadelphia local on their opinions about the parades, I would imagine that there is quite a bit of local pride involved.
In these case studies, traditions seem particularly successful when they incorporate enthusiasm and fun. It’s little wonder that the unique spirit behind a parade attracts our collective attention. The questions that still linger, however, are the ways in which some traditions supercede the confines of a community or region and begin to reflect national or otherwise larger collective interests. Whether a bit of luck or effective planning or more meaningful execution, the “why” matters.
In the meantime, I’ll be planning to tune in to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this Thursday with my sister, a tradition we’ve maintained as long as I can remember–and perhaps you will too. Be it the magic of the holidays or the strategy of a marketing team (or a little of both), we’re hooked on the tradition. Somebody at Macy’s deserved a raise back in 1924.