The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade: An ESL Lesson on America

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The Parade’s History

In the 1920s, many of the Macy’s Department Store’s employees were first-generation immigrants. Proud of their new American heritage, they wanted to celebrate the American holiday with the type of festivals they embraced in their European cultures. Dressed in costumes, with floats and even a band, the employees marched down 145th Street to 34th Street. Horses pulled floats and many live animals were borrowed from the New York Zoo to be in the parade. To date, more than 300,000 Macy’s employees have participated in the Parade since its inception in 1924.

Now, for almost 90 years, and a mainstay of America’s Thanksgiving culture, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade provides ESL teachers and students a wonderful opportunity to share a truly American festivity, be it by attending a Thanksgiving parade in small-town America, or just by turning on the television.

Macy’s official parade site also contains a lively and informative music video that ESL teachers may find useful for creating lesson plans based on the parade’s history, behind the scenes info, frequently asked questions, and an event lineup for the upcoming parade.

Parade Route

Check the website each year to be certain of the parade route; in 2009, the route changed for the first time ever. Older information may not put you in the right spot. The new route is meant to give more room for spectators to watch along the 2.5 mile route.

For 2012, the parade will kick off at 77th Street and Central Park. It heads down Central Park West and across Columbus Circle turning right on 6th Avenue, where it will continue until it reaches Macy’s.

The blocks between 34th and 38th Streets are generally reserved for the press.

Experienced parade viewers advise getting to where you want to watch the parade very early in the morning, around 5 am. Be prepared for cold or changeable weather when you dress. You don’t want to be too chilly or wet to enjoy the fun!

ESL Cultural Perspective Topics for Classroom Discussion and Activities

Post-parade viewing topics for inclusion in an ESL classroom discussion–and or a short essay assignment–may include:

  • Is there a famous parade in your country?
  • What is it called?
  • When is it held?
  • What is in the parade?

Activities for younger students may include:

  • Creating a small classroom parade, including decorated balloons, simple costumes and music.
  • After having viewed the parade, students create a drawing of their favorite float.

Also, the parade can be viewed via a videotape while the class shares a sampling of traditional Thanksgiving foods, as a collaborative activity for your students.

The Parade’s Timeline Trivia

The very history of the parade itself is rich with an evolution of American culture and history that can be used as a transition into several discussion topics and activities related to cultural topics unique to America.

1924 The inaugural parade was called the “Macy’s Christmas Day Parade” although it took place on Thanksgiving Day.

1925 and 1926 Bears, lions and tigers were added to the live animals (including horse drawn floats, camels, goats, elephants, and donkeys) but they scared the children along the parade route and had to be removed.

1927 Macy’s replaced the live animals in the Parade with its now signature giant helium balloons. The first balloons included Felix the Cat, the Dragon, the Elephant, and Toy Soldier.

1928 The first release of the giant balloons into the air at the end of the Parade–equipped with a return address label.

1929 Macy’s began offering prizes for the return of the giant balloons.

1931 Clarence Chamberlain, an aviator flying above New York City, catches the Pig Balloon in mid-air in order to claim the $25 reward money, in 1933.

1933 The practice of releasing the balloons was discontinued.

1933 The only year Santa Claus has led the Parade, as opposed to ending it.

1933 The first year the Parade was recorded for newsreels and subsequently shown in theaters around the world.

1934 Disney joined in the festivities, introducing the first Mickey Mouse balloon into the parade

1939 Children’s comic book favorites, including Superman, are introduced, paving the way for pop culture icons to be incorporated into the parade.

1941 Macy’s Day parade occurred just weeks before the start of World War II. It featured a prominent Uncle Sam helium parade balloon.

1942, 1943, and 1944 The Parade was canceled due to World War II. At the start of the war, Macy’s donated the Balloons (that were made of rubber at the time) to the government’s rubber scrap heap in a ceremony held at New York’s City Hall.

1947 The holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street, brought the Parade’s magic to theaters worldwide.

1948 NBC began telecastingg the Parade nationwide, as spectators from coast-to-coast began referring to the Parade as the “Macy’s Day Parade.”

1958 Due to a helium shortage in, the U.S. Government asked Macy’s to go light on the use of the gas. Macy’s decided to inflate the Balloons with air and hoist them on trucks with cranes for the journey down Broadway.

1969 The Macy’s Parade Studio moved to its current home in Hoboken, New Jersey in the former Tootsie Roll Factory.

1975 The Dino the Dinosaur Balloon was inducted into the Museum of Natural History as an honorary member.

1977 The “Parade Lady” Jean McFaddin, took the helm of the Parade, which she led for the next 24 years.

In the 1980s the smaller “novelty” balloons were introduced, including the Macy’s stars and the 30 ft. triple-scoop ice cream cone. “Falloons” were also introduced at this time, combination of float and cold air balloons.

1989 The Parade experienced its first snowstorm.

1990’s New Parade balloons were added from the Internet, video games, and contemporary cartoons, i.e. Sonic the Hedgehog, Jeeves and the Rugrats.

2004 Macy’s introduces The “Balloonicle,” a combination cold air balloon and self-propelled vehicle.

Over the years, the Parade has featured a number of celebrities: Harpo Marx, Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, Diana Ross, Sammy Davis, Jr., Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett, Barry Manilow, NSYNC, Shania Twain, and Christina Aguilera, among others.

America’s Parade for All Times

Whenever called upon by current events, from wars to the Kennedy assassination and 9/11, The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has radiated happiness and served to promote Americanism. It continues to show one of the best sides of the American cultural experience. Involve your ESL students in this ongoing American activity.