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The Macy's parade made its New York City debut on Thanksgiving Day in 1924, when it was billed as "The Macy's Christmas Day Parade" despite the date. Somebody must have looked at the calendar, because the name was changed in 1925. It's been the Thanksgiving Day Parade ever since.
There were no inflated balloons the first three years, although there were live animals and horse-drawn floats. Santa Claus arrived at the end of the first parade, as he has done every year since except 1933, when he led the line of march.
Balloons were not introduced until 1927. Along with three generic characters (a toy soldier, an elephant and a dragon) the cartoon character Felix the Cat was among the four balloons in the parade.
Mickey Mouse did not join the parade until 1934. Charlie Brown, Bullwinkle and Snoopy all came along in later years.
The first year, the balloons were inflated with air. Helium, or a mix of helium and air, has been used since. In fact, only the U.S. Government uses more helium than Macy's. A shortage of helium threatened to ground the balloons in 1958, but giant cranes were rolled out to keep the balloons aloft.