Thanksgiving should be big in Boston. So how did we let New York steal it from us?

Dr. Seuss' Grinch balloon headed down Sixth Avenue in New York on Nov. 23, 2017.
Dr. Seuss' Grinch balloon headed down Sixth Avenue in New York on Nov. 23, 2017.(NYT)

The injustice of it all hit James Carmody on Wednesday morning as he was driving back from the grocery store and heard a report on the radio about the crowds swarming into New York City to brave subfreezing temperatures for the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“I was thinking, why aren’t we doing something? Why don’t we have our own?” said Carmody, vice president and general manager of the Seaport Hotel. “The hotels in Boston would love to have something big on Thanksgiving, as well as the retailers.”

After all, the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, not Rockaway Beach. Yet somehow New York has stolen a holiday that by all rights should be ours.


Every year, the eyes of the nation turn to Manhattan for the Macy’s Parade, which draws 3.5 million enthusiastic visitors to the city, and another 50 million viewers on the nationwide telecast, all watching in wonderment as Ronald McDonald, the Grinch, Olaf, and 13 other giant balloon characters battle the wind along Sixth Avenue, accompanied by 1,200 cheerleaders and dancers, more than 1,000 clowns, and 12 marching bands. The streets are packed. The restaurants are hopping. Theaters are buzzing. And hotels are booked. It’s an economic and civic boom that Boston has ceded without the faintest fight, and New Yorkers are downright smug about it.

“Of course the greatest city in the world has the greatest Thanksgiving in America,” said Jane Meyer, deputy press secretary for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

A balloon in Boston on Thanksgiving Day 1937.
A balloon in Boston on Thanksgiving Day 1937.(Globe file)

Come to Boston on Thanksgiving and the picture could hardly be more different. Sure, we have our “turkey trots” and high school football games. But those are strictly local affairs, pleasant preludes to the big meal. Boston itself is a ghost town with nothing special to draw visitors to the region where history says they should be celebrating Thanksgiving by filling our hotel rooms, dining in our restaurants, and marveling at our historic sites.


“Hotel rooms are fairly quiet, there’s typically not a lot of events going on, and it’s a relatively quiet period and that carries through Sunday,” Carmody said. “Everyone does well on Black Friday. But what about Wednesday and Sunday?”

These are problems New York’s hotels and restaurants don’t seem to worry about.

“Typically speaking, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is one of the busiest times for New York, and the arrival of Santa Claus in Herald Square really signifies the start of the season,” said Christopher Heywood, senior vice president at NYC & Company, New York’s official tourism and marketing organization. “It’s a very busy time, and hotels do quite well.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, Boston did have its own Thanksgiving Day parade, called the Santason parade, which was sponsored by Jordan Marsh and featured drum majors, trick bicycle acts, and jugglers. It routinely drew about 750,000 spectators and featured Santa arriving from the North Pole in a hydroplane that landed in the Charles River.

But no one is quite sure why Boston, which relishes its rivalries with New York in almost any civic or athletic competition, has in recent years rolled over and allowed that other city to reign supreme on Thanksgiving. Some say it’s a matter of Yankee reserve, that New Englanders would just as soon not have a whiz-bang national event to worry about on Thanksgiving.


“It’s the psyche of the Massachusetts-Boston-Cape Cod people that we very much want to be with family on Thanksgiving, because that’s what the Pilgrims were all about, and I think we carry that all these 400 years later,” said Paul Sacco, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Lodging Association, which represents the state’s hotel industry. “We’re all about tradition.”

Boston could try to compete with New York on Thanksgiving, he said, but that would require a significant coordinated effort, which would be difficult to finance.

“There would have to be quite an infusion of funding to make that happen, particularly from the public sector,” Sacco said. “We in Massachusetts do not have the amount of money, say, that New York City has to promote the city, so they throw good money behind it.”

David O’Donnell, spokesman for Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, said while New York gets all the national glory, Boston looks at Thanksgiving as a “a springboard to the holiday season” studded with cherished local traditions like “The Nutcracker” and the Holiday Pops.

But O’Donnell acknowledged there is something discordant about letting New York win Thanksgiving. He said regional tourism officials should explore ways to restore Massachusetts to its rightful perch as the birthplace of the holiday.

“We would love to leverage Thanksgiving as a big event to bring people into the city just like we do for the regatta and the Marathon and other major events,” O’Donnell said. “This is where it happened first, and there’s no more seminal area for this holiday than New England.”


Senator Edward J. Markey predicted all eyes would be on Massachusetts two years from now, when Plymouth marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival. He said he had secured money to dredge Plymouth Harbor, clearing the way for the Mayflower II, a full-scale reproduction of the original ship, to enter the storied port.

“You’re talking tourism, you’re talking the 400th birthday of Thanksgiving, and I got the money to totally dredge it,” Markey said, as he served turkey dinners to needy people in Roxbury on Wednesday. “We invented Thanksgiving, and so we’re already planning ahead for 2020 to make sure everyone knows that it started right here.”

Mayor Martin J. Walsh seemed less concerned with the Thanksgiving tourism deficit, saying he never considered it a problem.

“Maybe it’s something I should work on as the year goes on. How do we attract more people to Boston for Thanksgiving?” he said with a shrug.

Heywood, the New York tourism official, said Bostonians should not feel bad that America looks to New York to mark Thanksgiving.

“We look at this as a national celebration, and we want to share it with Bostonians as much as we want to share with the rest of the world,” he said. “We welcome them.”

Some Boston officials insist they like Thanksgiving here, just the way it is.

“You can stand in the cold and look at a giant Garfield balloon, or take a nice brisk walk at dusk along the Boston Common through the Public Garden,” said City Councilor Matt O’Malley. “The choice for me couldn’t be more clear.”


Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.