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A History Of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, The Holiday's Most Famous Celebration

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - Nothing embodies the spirit of the holiday like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

For 95 years, it's become a Thanksgiving Day staple, reports CBS2's Steve Overmyer.

It all began in 1924 with a procession just two blocks long and featuring animals from the Central Park Zoo.

"It must've been so magical and unbelievable," said Valerie Paley, chief historian at the New-York Historical Society. "Interestingly enough, by 1927, they stopped with the zoo animals because they scared the children a little too much along with way."

The parade was originally known as the Christmas Parade as a way for the nation's largest store to jumpstart the season of shopping.

"Culminating at the end of the parade with Santa Claus unveiling the holiday windows on 34th Street," said Paley.

Santa isn't the only star of the show. When the zoo animals were replaced by giant balloons, at the end of the parade the helium-filled balloons were released over Manhattan.

"The thought was they would release them and there was a return to sender label on them, and they would come back to Macy's," said Paley.

Thanksgiving Day Parade 1961
An inflated Popeye floats above the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York as it nears Times Square. (Photo by William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images)

Instead of waiting for them to return to the ground, a student pilot tried to wrangle Felix the Cat while it was floating. It got tangled in her biplane and crashed. Fortunately, both the pilot and copilot survived.

Over the years the balloons have thrilled children and adults alike, getting bigger and bigger every year.

The first balloons floated close to the ground, but even then their enemy was the wind. The only time the wind was too strong to fly any balloons was 1971.

Maneuvering through Manhattan is a bit tougher than elsewhere, "when you consider how wide Central Park West is, and the rest of the streets of New York are compared to other American cities, but also how wide the balloons are," said Paley.

Some balloons reach six stories and require up to 100 handlers. In 1991, Kermit the Frog got snagged on a tree at Central Park. Two years later Barney the Dinosaur's fight with a light pole led him to a similar fate.

While balloons have been the stars, from the beginning the workhorses have been the floats.

Once just cloth covering a truck, floats have evolved into something more sensational.

"You see something that is quintessential New York," said Paley. "The crowds, the excitement, the marching band. It is such a celebration of the season. New York is such an amplifier of great things and this parade is no exception."

From Felix the Cat, to Tom Turkey, to Santa Claus, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade embraces a tradition that continues to bring people together.

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