Whether we watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade at home, snuggled in pajamas, or lined along Manhattan's West Side, bundled against the usual chill, it's one of the few traditions Americans share.
The 85th annual parade begins on NBC Thursday morning, Nov. 24. And that night, Matt Lauer hosts a one-hour special chronicling its history.
From Tom Turkey, the balloon that historically launches the parade, until Santa glides in front of Macy's flagship store three hours later, 800 clowns, 27 floats, 1,600 cheerleaders, 44 novelty balloons and 11 marching bands wend their way three miles downtown.
"It is one of the few experiences we have that is comforting and feels like it is always there," says singer Michael Feinstein, making his fifth appearance at the parade. "They keep up with the time, but they also do not let go of tradition."
For most of us, it's a lovely annual tradition, ushering in the holidays. For John Piper, vice president of the parade studio, it's been his passion for 31 years.
On a mild day six weeks before the parade, Piper walks through the massive studio in Moonachie, N.J., near the Meadowlands complex. Deflated balloons are stored in bins. Most of Snoopy, however, is inflated. His nose alone is 55 feet long. Jim Artle, the parade's most senior "balloonatic," prepares to paint Uncle Sam's peeling red, white and blue outfit.
Massive foam structures, glued onto wood frames, sit in various stages of completion. No matter how huge, each one will be compacted to 12.5 feet tall and 8.5 feet wide to fit through the Lincoln Tunnel.
The Wednesday before, workers inflate the balloons and reassemble the floats, which has become "the largest nonevent in New York City," Piper says. Some years it is so crowded, pedestrian gridlock sets in.
The tallest float this year, at 36 feet, is the new torch of freedom, a re-creation of the hand, arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty, in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
"Where we were in Hoboken, we could see it," Piper says of the terrorist attack. Those fleeing the World Trade Center and heading to Jersey had to leave by ferry and walked by the parade's old studio. His crew handed out water.
"The parade itself that year was the first major public event in New York," Piper says. "And we were all holding our breath. We knew the mantle was on us to restore everyone's faith. And with that parade came a giant breath of relief that our traditions were still there."
And tradition is what it is all about.
For American Idol Scotty McCreery, tradition means eating turkey with his family at his grandmother's in South Mills, N.C., and watching the parade.
Riding on the Home Baked Goodness float, McCreery plans to sing "Trouble With Girls."
He ponders which is his favorite balloon and settles on a certain lovable blockhead.
"Is there a Charlie Brown one? I love that one! People say when I was younger I looked like him. When I was young I was chubby -- when I was really, really young."
McCreery says, "I'm looking forward to getting out there and eating a good turkey."
Feinstein wrote a kids song about pirates and will be on the Jolly Pirate Ship float.
"It is certainly a resonant experience because of the history of what the parade represents," Feinstein says. "There is something so extraordinary about being on the float and the two hours leading up to the actual performance broadcast because that is when you have the chance to connect with an extraordinary number of people, who are all at their best, people who are happy and appreciating life and enjoying the celebration of something good in our world that has lasted.
"It is fantastic," he continues. "People yell your name as you go by, and you see them dancing."
Being on the float gives an unusual perspective, Feinstein says, as he sees people waving from the windows and gets a panoramic view. Though he's lived in Manhattan and L.A. for years, Feinstein says, "The parade was just as important to me growing up in Ohio because tradition is very important in our country right now at a time when so many things are changing or lost; when the world is becoming more segmented, the parade is something we all share as a country. I appreciate the way it brings people together. I appreciate it for the diversity of the parade. When Obama was elected I lobbied to have the first African-American Santa Claus. I am still disappointed in that because it would have been an incredible message for so many kids in the country.
"I never dreamt that I would be a part of the parade; it's like a childhood fantasy come true," Feinstein says.
Despite new attractions annually -- Sonic the Hedgehog returns, and cartoonist/designer Paul Frank's creation Julius the monkey, wearing a jet pack, debuts -- the tradition is constant.
"We are very proud that we are the custodians of this wonderful national holiday, where Americans give thanks and celebrate," Piper says. "It really has become the opening of the door to the season. When I am on a portion of the parade and 2 million mouths are wide open and 4 million eyes are popping and everyone is a child -- it doesn't get any better!"
At Macy's parade, a holiday tradition gets off the ground
The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade airs Thursday on NBC.