Hurray for the Parade!

Thanksgiving in the United States has many memorable customs, some sublime—prayer, gratitude, history—and some less so—leftovers, football, parades. Parades? Yes! The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has imbedded itself in American consciousness, but folks in greater Philadelphia know it is a johnny come lately.

Santa arrives in Los Angeles, 1940

On November 25, 1920 Gimbel Brother’s Department Store in Philadelphia held a modest parade involving fifteen cars and fifty people, aimed as much at their employees as the public and designed to rev up enthusiasm for the Christmas shopping season, which in those days began after Thanksgiving. Without the months long creep of Christmas décor, music, and advertising that assaults us today, the arrival of Santa Clause in that last car must have been a dramatic statement.

Delaware County Daily Times Tue Nov 24 1925. Thanksgiving Day parade advertisement

Credit for the idea goes to Ellis Gimbel, one of the younger members of the Gimbel clan. Smart man; he went on to head the company which included not only branches in many cities, but also Saks, as in Saks Fifth Avenue. The parade was brilliant marketing in 1920, so much so that by 1924 R.H. Macy in New York and J.L Hudson in Detroit heavily promoted parades of their own. Philadelphia likes to think of them as copycats. Other cities followed.

In 1925 Gimbel’s shot back with a massive parade featuring over 1500 people, sixty-eight “big features,” and Santa Claus pulled by “the only team of reindeer in the United States that can be driven in harness.” It paraded down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to end, of course, in front of Gimbel Brother’s Department Store. It became a tradition for Santa to climb a ladder to the eight floor of the store, ostensibly to get ready to greet children.

The rivalry was on. Gimbels and Macy’s competed for parades and the holiday shoppers they were designed to pull in, so much so that their rivalry became a bit of a by-word for competition. Floats got fancier; balloons got bigger; crowds got larger; Christmas promotion got louder. The rivalry was even featured in the 1947 film, Miracle on 34th Street.

Band and balloons 1969-Philadelphia city archives

In the TV era it became an embarrassment of riches for children in their pajamas on Thanksgiving morning, with one network featuring Macy’s, another Gimbel’s, and in some years parades in cities as diverse as Detroit and Honolulu. How Santa managed to attend them all was a mystery. Lucky children actually went to the parades! Marching in them became a high-school band tradition.

Though some people may be weary of the Christmas “season” by Thanksgiving these days, the tradition persists. Gimbel’s ceased long ago, most local department stores merged into the ubiquitous new “Macy’s,” but the parades go on. In Philadelphia the ABC affiliate and a local store, Boscov’s, stepped in rescue the parade when Gimbel’s ceased to be. Even IKEA took a turn. In recent years it is the “6ABC Dunkin’ Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade.” That doesn’t have the ring as “the Gimbel’s Parade,” and it no longer keeps up with Macy’s in size of balloons or star power, but Philadelphia still loves its parade. This year we will watch the 100th iteration of Thankgsiving parades in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia had the idea first; they can’t take that away from us. Some my quibble that the older, modest parades don’t count, but we know better. It started in Philadelphia.

The parades make occasional appearances in fiction, generally sweet romances, but the quintessential mention remains, Miracle on 34th Street.

For more information see:

Bixler, Michael; “Fear and Floating at the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade,” vintage photos on Hidden City: Exploring Philadelphia’s Urban Landscape, November 22, 2017.

Greenberg, Kyrie; “We Haven’t Forgotten: Gimbels Thanksgiving Parade Was the First,” on Hidden City: Exploring Philadelphia’s Urban Landscape, November 24, 2014.

Kativa, Hillary and Horning, Timothy; “Floats, Baloons, and Celebrities, Oh my!,” on The PhillyHistory Blog: Discoveries from City Archives, November 22, 2010.

Kofsky, Keith; “History of Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” the website of the Keith Kofsky law firm, November 22, 2013.

Rowan, Tommy; “Is Philly’s Thanksgiving Parade Really the Oldest in America?” on The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 22, 2013.

Starr, Sally; “1957 Gimbel’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” video

Caroline Warfield, happily enjoys what is arguably her fourth act in the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, writing romance with a heavy dose of history. A treasured Thanksgiving memory is the time her daughter’s high-school band motored to Philadelphia from Columbus, Ohio to march in the Gimbel’s parade.

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