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Chicago’s Thanksgiving Parade Started 84 Years Ago As The Christmas Caravan

For most of its reign, the city's annual holiday parade has centered around Christmas, not Thanksgiving.

The very first Christmas Caravan was held Dec. 7, 1934 on State Street before it became a Thanksgiving Day parade decades later.
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THE LOOP — Long before Teddy Turkey hovered above swaths of Chicagoans lined along Michigan Avenue for the annual Thanksgiving parade, there was another big name leading the charge: Santa Claus.

In fact, for most of its reign, the city’s annual holiday parade has centered around Christmas, not Thanksgiving. 

In 1934, the idea for a holiday train caravan down State Street was pitched to Mayor Edward Kelly by Walter Gregory, president of the then-State Street Council (now Chicago Loop Alliance). 

During the Great Depression, people in Chicago weren’t happy — or shopping — and Gregory hoped to bring some much-needed cheer and economic stimulation to the city. 

In May of that year, news spread of the stainless steel, three-car Burlington Zephyr making the 1,000-mile, non-stop trek from Denver to Chicago at 112 miles per hour that would later carry Gregory, Santa and other guests down State Street from Wacker to Congress, according to “Chicago’s State Street Parade” by Robert Ledermann.

On Dec. 7, 1934, the train arrived to full fanfare and loaded with toys from State Street stores.

According to news reports from the time, the spectacle worked: Sales in the Loop saw the highest profits since pre-Depression days in 1927. 

Credit: McDonald’s Thanksgiving Parade/Facebook
In 1935, the parade’s name was changed from the Christmas Caravan to the State Street Christmas Parade.

On Christmas Eve that year, thousands of Chicagoans gathered Downtown to sing carols. 

In 1935, the caravan changed its name to the State Street Christmas Parade and opened with a miniature steam engine adorned with a banner that read, “Santa is here.”

“Times were tough, but Chicago’s spirit ‘I Will’ lived on,” Ledermann wrote. “Even at the height of the Depression, Chicago still managed to pull together Christmas parades that were welcomed by all.”

The State Street Christmas Parade ran until 1983 and was sponsored by McDonald’s for the first time in 1984, then calling it the McDonald’s Children’s Charity Parade.

From 1990-99 the route was changed to Michigan Avenue and was held from Balbo to Wacker Drives under various names, such as The Brach’s Kids Holiday Parade, The Field’s Jingle Elf Parade and The Field’s Jingle Elf Parade Presented by Target & Marshall Field’s.

In 2002, the parade’s date was changed to Thanksgiving and its route back to State Street.

The 85th annual Thanksgiving Parade will run this year from 8-11 a.m. on State Street from Congress Parkway going northbound to Randolph Street.

This story was originally published by DNAinfo Chicago in 2016. It has been updated.