Under the giant helium balloons that bobbed over Manhattan on Thursday morning during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, people in the crowd shouted to each other. Shouting of “Happy Thanksgiving!” echoed through Central Park West, all the way to Herald Square.
A year after the virus forced the parade into a single, spectator-free block, the words felt powerful. The club twirlers, the stilt walkers, the marching bands, the onlookers wearing toddlers in turkey-shaped hats during a parade that was back to their old selves were unmistakable Merry.
And in a city reeling from the loss of so many New Yorkers over the past 20 months, no word better summed up the emotion of those who were there than satisfying.
“Just to be able to be in a social environment, that’s all!” said Asa Jenkins, 36, a research coordinator who had brought her two children from Aiken, SC, for the parade, their first family outing since the start of the pandemic. After more than a year of remote meetings for her and virtual school for her children, Christian, 8, and Eden, 5, Ms. Jenkins said she couldn’t bear to watch the parade on television this year. They had to come in person.
“All we’ve done is screens,” Mrs. Jenkins said as a 51-foot balloon belonging to the children’s book character Ada Twist, scientist, bobbed over her. “This is what we need.”
The parade, which began in 1924 and was canceled only rarely, such as during World War II, was back in its full 4.5-mile glory. The avenues were packed with 4,500 volunteers pulling 15 giant helium balloons and throwing confetti.
There were some differences this year. The New York tradition of watching the balloons blown up on the Upper West Side the day before was open only to vaccinated people. Some cheer squads marched in masks to match their berets; a group of tuba players pulled their masks up and down between the blows of their horns.
Simeon Guyton, 19, a club turner with the Hampton University Marching Force, said the Virginia group spent much of the past year practicing online. Now a sophomore at Hampton, he said his freshman year had been a long way off and that he’d kept in shape by spinning his baton in his driveway.
“To be back with my band family is such a relief,” he said. “The pandemic is not over yet, but we can all be together in a controlled, safe way.”
Every year, the best seats in the house are usually in apartments in the stately buildings along Central Park; some residents and their guests ate bagel breakfasts high above the crowds on Thursday while taking in the scene.
But across nearly two blocks in Central Park West, about 100 members of a group of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sat in the front row in folding chairs, orchestra seats they’d secured by arriving at 4 a.m. , a community tradition that was canceled last year.
But not every ritual erased by the coronavirus had returned. Rebecca Mattoni, who lives on the Upper West Side, said she usually hosted a dozen people for Thanksgiving before the pandemic. This year she hosted a guest.
“It’s still fun because we didn’t have any guests last year,” said Ms. Mattoni. “This is an improvement.”
Marcela Pleitéz, 38, a daycare nurse from the Bronx, felt the same. She had a family visiting for the holidays this year, but was unsure whether they should hug. However, she hugged her parents. They stood next to her, having just flown in from El Salvador, where they live, to see their daughter for the first time since before the pandemic started. “You can’t ask for more now,” said Mrs. Pleitéz.
A few blocks south, Bob Meyers, a retired teacher from North Arlington, New Jersey, was more excited about the fact that there were finally tourists in the crowd than about the 48-foot-long Pikachu drifting by on a sled overhead.
“We have Israel here!” Mr Meyers, 77, pointed out visitors he had befriended as they watched the parade together. “And there’s Chile! This really gets the juices going!”
The spectacle itself seemed to point to the greater freedom of movement that a raging pandemic could allow. Several floats promoted outings. Rapper Nelly stood atop a float advertising Kalahari Resorts and Conventions. A giant alligator — at 60 feet, according to Macy’s, the longest float in parade history — crept along the parade route courtesy of the Louisiana Office of Tourism; not far away, a replica of Mount Rushmore ran alongside people dressed as fishermen and hikers, courtesy of the South Dakota Department of Tourism.
dr. Pam Martin, a visiting doctor from Keller, Texas, said her family had planned her annual pilgrimage around vaccines and booster shots; she and her relatives spent the days before waiting to hear if the vaccine would be approved in time for her great-nephew, Jordan Johnson, 7, to participate.
On Thursday, Jordan was by her side, cheering and catching confetti. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month approved vaccinations for children his age.
Still, Dr Martin said she was concerned that crowds ahead of the parade could cause a spike in coronavirus cases. “I pray New York does well,” she said.
In addition to the floats, Sgt. Gabriel Vazquez III of the New York City Parks Department’s Mounted Unit and his American spotted draft horse, Apollo, marched in the parade. Sergeant Vasquez hadn’t ridden the parade in years, he said, but this year he couldn’t miss it.
On top of his horse, waving an American flag as they strode the route, he said, “It’s like walking back to normal.”