Would it feel like Thanksgiving Day without marching bands tooting horns and clanging symbols, Santa Claus cruising on a whimsical float, and novelty balloons of cartoon icons maneuvering through the streets of New York City?
Since 1924, Macy’s has ushered in the holiday season with the largest annual parade in the country. In 1927, Felix the Cat inaugurated the participation of massive helium and air-filled balloons, soaring through the six-mile route as a replacement for live animals. Originally, the parade served a dual purpose to advertise the department store and to create an event for European immigrants that would remind them of celebrations in their home countries. It became a day of joy during the Depression Era, and today the hype continues.
The world’s largest department store has maintained the tradition throughout the 20th and 21st centuries with the exception of its pause from 1942 to 1944 when both helium and rubber were in short supply during World War II. In 1958, a helium shortage left balloons void of the lifting gas, but they managed to get by as they were dragged by cranes on top of trucks. Helium shortages have frequented over the past several years and will continue but have not interfered with the Thanksgiving parade since.
Even for most adults the event remains nostalgic, but the question is, should helium be splurged on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade when there are more important uses for the precious element?
Last year, Macy’s consumed 300,000 cubic feet ($30,000 worth according to Forbes) of helium despite a global shortage to lift the five-to-six-story-tall balloons. Each balloon – around 16 giant characters per parade – can hold up to 12,000 cubic feet of helium, which fills individual chambers divided into body parts.
According to Live Science, balloons of any kind, including the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloons, party balloons, and weather balloons, suck up seven percent of helium usage in the United States. MRI scanners make up 28 percent and NASA and the Department of Defense together consume 26 percent. Around 13 percent is dedicated to advancing the digital age, manufacturing fiber optics for semiconductor chips – the data components of computers and cell phones.
Would cutting $30,000 worth of helium per year used on a single day be significant enough to preserve helium to be used elsewhere? The global helium market may be dependent on too many factors to tell. More than anything, the global market fluctuates depending on politics and plants’ abilities to stay up and running, both of which have been inconsistent since 2017. Qatar’s political tension with Saudi Arabia in 2017 led to Saudi Arabia cutting off land, sea, and air trading routes, preventing Qatar from exporting the precious commodity. In 2010, a physicist at Cornell University predicted that at the current rate the world’s helium supply could be depleted as soon as 2035. However, a massive helium-filled natural gas deposit was discovered in Tanzania in 2016, with scientists estimating a 54 billion cubic foot supply. There has been an effort to create the infrastructure for a plant to get this deposit circulating around the globe. When plants come back online or new ones surface, there can even be cases of oversupply. The market continues to swing both ways.
The deposit in Tanzania could help tie over the globe for a long while, meaning the beloved balloon characters of the inaugural holiday festivity will soar on. If worse comes to worse, Macy’s may have to revert back to 1958’s parade tactic of inflating Snoopy and friends with air while tied to cranes positioned on trucks. For now, splurging on the Thanksgiving morning pastime can remain a tradition that ushers in the holiday season without feeling like it sacrifices the global supply for more essential uses.