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Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade fun facts

Sure, the malls have been decked with Christmas decor for weeks already but for most people, the holiday season doesn't officially start until Manhattan is swarmed by giant helium balloons and Santa Claus rides down Sixth Avenue.

Of course, we're talking about the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

Millions of people will once again kick off Thanksgiving by watching the parade from the city or the comfort of their homes, but do they know how this tradition started?

Here are fun, surprising and strange facts about the parade. (File these in your head just in case you need to fill any awkward moments at the dinner table this Thanksgiving.)

Say what? It was originally a 'Christmas Parade'

When the first parade was held on Thanksgiving
Photo Credit: Macy's

When the first parade was held on Thanksgiving Day in 1924, it was called the "Macy's Christmas Parade." The event was organized by a small group of Macy's employees, who, dressed in costumes, marched from 145th Street and Convent Avenue to the company's Herald Square flagship, along with a mix of entertainers, floats and -- of course -- Santa Claus.

The first parade was very circus-like

Wait, where are the bearded ladies and clowns
Photo Credit: Macy's

Wait, where are the bearded ladies and clowns in a car? The original parade in 1924 included a menagerie of circus mainstays, including monkeys, bears, camels and elephants, all borrowed from the Central Park Zoo.

But it wasn't long before the live animals were replaced

Come 1927, the live animals were out and
Photo Credit: Macy's

Come 1927, the live animals were out and they were replaced by inflatable critters. This was the year that the parade's signature giant helium balloons made their debut, with Felix the Cat leading the way. He was joined by a flying dragon, elephant and toy soldier.

The balloons used to be released into the air -- on purpose!

If Snoopy or another one of the parade's
Photo Credit: Macy's

If Snoopy or another one of the parade's giant helium balloons float away today, someone's going to get fired. OK, maybe just given a talking-to. But in the past, organizers would intentionally release the enormous inflatable characters into the sky after the parade, instead of deflating them. At first, the balloons would pop quickly, but, starting in 1929, safety valves were added so the helium could slowly seep out, allowing them to float for a few days. The balloons were also tagged with return address labels, so when they finally did land, they could be sent back to Macy's, which would reward its finders with gifts, including $100 checks. This practice was discontinued after a balloon released following the 1932 parade "wrapped itself around a passing airplane's wing, sending it into a tailspin," according to TIME magazine. The mid-air collision, which happened over Jamaica, Queens, luckily didn't result in any fatalities -- the pilot landed safely at Roosevelt Field.

Santa hasn't always been the show-stopping finale

Santa Claus has been the finale of the
Photo Credit: Macy's

Santa Claus has been the finale of the parade every year except for 1933. That year, organizers decided to have St. Nick kick off the parade.

The truth about the parade's cameo in 'Miracle on 34th Street'

The parade scenes in the 1947 holiday classic
Photo Credit: Macy's

The parade scenes in the 1947 holiday classic "Miracle on 34th Street" are actual shots of the 1946 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. After careful preparation, the film's producers set up cameras along the parade route. They were mindful that they wouldn't have the ability to shoot retakes since it was a live event. And, unbeknownst to most spectators, the Santa Claus riding in the parade that year was actor Edmund Gwenn, who played Santa Claus in the film.

The parade's balloons were donated to the war effort in the 1940s

The parade went on a three-year hiatus when
Photo Credit: Macy's

The parade went on a three-year hiatus when the U.S. entered World War II, prompted by the subsequent rubber and helium shortages. The 1942, 1943 and 1944 parades were canceled and the balloons were donated to the U.S. government, providing 650 pounds of scrap rubber for the war effort.

It's not only cats that have multiple lives -- so does Snoopy

There's been
Photo Credit: Macy's

There's been "Flying Ace Snoopy," "Astronaut Snoopy" and even "Millennium Snoopy." Since 1968, there have been seven different Snoopy balloons, the most for any one character. Needless to say, Snoopy is the top dog.

The first 'human' balloon debuted 83 years ago

Entertainer Eddie Cantor -- familiar to Broadway, radio,
Photo Credit: Macy's

Entertainer Eddie Cantor -- familiar to Broadway, radio, movie and early TV audiences -- became the first human to be turned into a Macy's parade balloon in 1934.

Popeye once had a wardrobe malfunction -- sort of

Spectators at the 1957 parade got an unexpected
Photo Credit: Macy's

Spectators at the 1957 parade got an unexpected surprise as Popeye passed by. Rain water from a sudden downpour collected inside his hat, and, as the balloon tipped forward, it dumped gallons of water onto those nearby.

Those massive floats must fit into a box -- no joke

Throughout the years, floats in the parade have
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Jemal Countess

Throughout the years, floats in the parade have become more elaborate and increased in size -- up to 40 feet tall and 28 feet wide -- but one thing remains the same. The floats must be capable of being folded into a 12-foot-by-8-foot box so they can be transported from the Macy's Parade Studio in New Jersey to Manhattan by way of the Lincoln Tunnel.

Parade artists speak their own language

What's a
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Laura Cavanaugh

What's a "falloon"? What about a "balloonicle"? Go ahead and ask one of the artists who work in the Macy's Parade Studio. A "falloon" is the name given to a float that incorporates a cold air balloon. This hybrid was introduced in the 1980s. A "balloonicle" refers to a cold air balloon combined with a self-propelling vehicle, akin to the Weebles -- the children's roly-poly toy -- that debuted in 2004. Those should not be confused with the parade's other innovation, "trycaloons" (pictured), which are part-balloon, part-tricycle.

The parade route used to be twice as long

While the parade's balloons, floats, participants and spectators
Photo Credit: Google Maps

While the parade's balloons, floats, participants and spectators continue to grow each year, the route itself has been substantially downsized. When the first parade was held in 1924, the route stretched nearly 6 miles. But in 1946, the starting point was moved to Central Park West and 77th Street, slashing the distance by more than half. That was also the first year the parade, which drew 2 million spectators, was televised locally. The following year it was broadcast to a national audience.

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