NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been synonymous with the holiday for nearly 100 years. Over that time, it has gone from wild animals, to mega floats, to a balloon theft by a plane.

CBS2’s Steve Overmyer has many more surprising parade facts.

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Ahh, the splendor, pageantry and helium-filled magnificence.

The Macy’s parade started in 1924 and was only two blocks long. The animals weren’t made of rubber. They were on loan from the Central Park Zoo.

“It must’ve been so magical and unbelievable. Interestingly enough, by 1927 they stopped with the zoo animals because they scared the children along the way,” said Valerie Paley, chief historian for the New York Historical Society.

Originally known as “The Christmas Parade,” it was a way for the nation’s largest store to give the season of shopping a jumpstart.

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

(Photo: CBS2)

The first St. Nick was less jolly and wasn’t spooky at all. In fact, the image we have of Santa was created in New York City. In 1823, Clement Clark Moore wrote about the white-haired, red-suited man we know today when he penned “A Visit from St. Nicklaus.” You might know this poem by its more familiar title, “The Night Before Christmas.”

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In 1927, we saw our first balloons. Did you know the engineers creating them are called “baloonitics?” They quickly became the stars of the show. Now, remember this was the 1920s, the age of aviation was just taking flight. So at the end of the parade, the balloonitics just released them into the wind.

“The thought was they if they would release them and there was a return-to-sender label on them, they would come back to Macy’s,” Paley said.

Except, instead of waiting for them to return to the ground, a student pilot named Annette Gibson tried to wrangle “Felix the Cat” while it was floating. It got tangled in her biplane and crashed. Fortunately, everyone survived. Macy’s never released a balloon again.

Over the years, the balloons have thrilled children and adults alike. The first balloons floated close to the ground and even then their enemy was the wind. Over the years, they’ve gotten bigger and bigger. Some balloons reach six stories high and require up to 100 handlers. In 1991, “Kermit the Frog” got snagged on a tree in Central Park.

“When you consider how wide Central Park West is, pretty wide compared to some American cities, but how wide the balloons are,” Paley said.

The only time wind grounded all balloons was in 1971, but the parade kept kicking. In fact, the only event to ever stop the parade was World War II. Even last year, the pandemic kept the crowds away, but not the celebration.

While balloons have been the stars, from the beginning the workhorses have been the floats. Once just trucks covered in cloth, floats have evolved into something more sensational.

“You see something that is quintessentially New York — you see the New York City streets, you see the crowds, the excitement, the marching bands. It is such a celebration of the season,” Paley said. “New York is such an amplifier of great things and certainly this parade is no exception.”

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From “Felix the Cat,” to “Tom Turkey,” to Santa Claus, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade embraces tradition, and tradition is what brings people together.

Steve Overmyer