Like a dear old friend, you’ve spent every holiday season together. Since childhood, you can remember feeling happiness and warmth during your visits. Sometimes, you roll your eyes at the corny jokes, laugh dismissively at memories of old fads, fashions and trends — but let’s just admit it: Everyone loves the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
That said, how well do you know this friend that you invite into your home every year?
With that question in mind, behold “The Secret Life of the Macy’s Parade” — 10 little-known facts about an American institution.
1. The first parade didn’t make a lot of sense
In a 1924 attempt to celebrate the store’s expansion, “Macy’s Christmas Parade” originally didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving at all. Rather than balloons the parade featured bears, elephants, donkeys and other circus animals that would undoubtedly be protested today. Ads promised “A tremendous pageant of tableaux, comedians and tragedians” and the “welcome and coronation of Santa Claus on the Throne of Gold.” Santa was crowned “King of the Kiddies,” and the New York Times reported that the event featured “freaks” — a word that, in those days, didn’t exactly connote what a modern audience would expect from a holiday event.
2. The giant balloons were released — and if you caught one, you won cash
In the spirit of horrible promotional ideas like “Where’s Herb?” and turkeys being tossed from a plane, in 1928 Macy’s came up with a doozy: At the end of the parade, they would release all the giant balloons into the sky, and whoever caught them would receive a $100 reward. When a 60-foot-tiger, a bird, an elephant, another “early” bird pulling balloon worms and a 25-foot-high ghost were released into the sky, they were expected to float for about a week and-a-half, but rarely did. The Tiger landed on the roof of a Long island home, resulting in a tug-of-war between neighbors and motorists; another landed in the East River and resulted in a boat chase; the ghost was last seen moving out to sea being chased by gulls (which is really good for the environment). In 1932, a woman taking flying lessons nearly crashed a plane, piloting it into one of the balloons in an attempt to catch it — soon after, Macy’s discontinued the practice.
3. In 1971, there were no balloons
Despite decades of tradition, it was decided in 1971 that the winds were too strong for the annual balloon procession. Watch the slideshow below and you can get a sense of how “Un-Macy’s-like” the parade was that year.
4. In 1997, the balloons injured four spectators
If you think 1971 was bad — well, at least they had the sense to pull the balloons down that year. In 1997, winds as strong as 43-mph hit the Macy’s Parade, but this time it was decided that the show would go on. As The New York Times wrote: “Sudden bursts of punishing wind spun havoc at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade yesterday, as many of the parade’s signature helium-filled balloons were damaged and as four spectators were hurt when one of the giant balloons struck a lamppost, plunging the top part of it into the crowd. Two people were hospitalized with severe head injuries.”
5. The Cat in the Hat and the M&M have both injured people
That 1997 accident can be seen at 0:20 in the video below, as a six-story-tall Cat in the Hat slams into a cast-steel lamppost. In the aftermath, Macy’s promised additional training for its balloon handlers — but danger struck again in 2005, when an M&M balloon filled with 515 pounds of polyurethane began to tip erratically before being punctured by a light pole. It pulled off another light fixture and dropped it into the crowd — causing a wheelchair-bound woman and her 11-year-old sister to be taken to the hospital.
6. Yes, the celebrities are usually lip-syncing
Unlike Ashlee Simpson, the musicians who appear in the Macy’s Parade have a good excuse for lip-synching: The logistics of being on a float surrounded by competing floats with musical acts, performing the same snippet of a song repeatedly, often with no room for a back-up band. Of course, some celebrities lip-sync better than others — among the notables who’ve been busted over the years are Kristin Chenoweth, American Authors, and Ashley Tisdale.
7. Nothing makes you feel worse (or laugh harder) than falling performers
Typically, the bands and cheerleaders are school kids who’ve worked long and hard to earn their moment in the national spotlight. As they perform intricately-choreographed moves, there will inevitably be falls, and you can’t help but feel their pain. But at the same time, it’s hard not to smile at the clip below.
8. The worst Macy’s balloon? Probably this one
In 1999, the first boom of the Internet was riding high, so Pets.com created a balloon for their mascot “Buddy“; by November of 2000, the company had folded. Other notable “They really made that?” balloons include Beethoven (not the composer — the dog from the Charles Grodin movies), a Smiley Face (Hey, it was 1972), and Jeeves from AskJeeves.com — who was dropped by the company 5 years later, and is likely now standing on the unemployment line with the Pets.com mascot.
9. In 2008, the Macy’s Parade got RickRolled
Do you remember when the Internet was obsessed with RickRolling? Well, those early days of Web memes even stretched to the Macy’s Day parade. While characters from “Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends” sang the song from “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” (yeah, don’t ask), Rick Astley himself emerged from the float — singing “Never Gonna Give You Up” and RickRolling a bunch of fictional characters. Try explaining that one to your kids.
10. We love it anyway
In 2014, 22.6 million people watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — and that figure was considered a down year. Despite all of the above — all the carnage, lip-syncing, stumbling performers and cheesy RickRolling — the parade remains one of the few broadcasts that Americans come together to watch, year after year. So gather your family together and enjoy a tradition with an old friend — just be sure to watch out for those tragedians.