How Detroit became the only city in America to get a national parade and NFL football game on Thanksgiving

Detroit on Thanksgiving Day
Photo credit (Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports / Leon Halip/Getty Images)

DETROIT (WWJ) -- While many celebrate Thanksgiving with parades, football and a lot of food, Detroit helps facilitate at least least two of those traditions each year for households across the country.

But how exactly did the Motor City come to host a nationally-syndicated parade and one of the few NFL games to take place on Thanksgiving?

A little lesson in Detroit history is required for the answer!

Now in its 96th year, America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade presented by Gardner White is the second largest and oldest Thanksgiving parade in the U.S.

The parade began in 1924 after J.L. Hudson Co. display director Charles Wendel became inspired by two things: the success of the annual holiday parade in Toronto, Ontario, and the unique papier-mâché "Big Head" costumes he observed while on a trip to Viareggio, Italy.

Bringing some of the Big Heads to Detroit and pairing them up with a few floats and bands, Detroit’s parade started to take shape.

Beginning in 1931, a radio broadcast on WWJ allowed the parade to enter even more households in the region, and after receiving its first local television broadcast in 1949, it later became nationally-syndicated for a time on ABC.

Jumping around on different television stations over the years, the parade landed on the local NBC affiliate WDIV in the mid-90s, and an hour of the parade is still broadcast nationally to 185 major U.S. cities.

Control of the parade also changed hands several times throughout the decades, and Gardner White became the sponsor in 2020. The holiday event is organized annually by The Parade Company in Detroit.

But when the parade wraps up at noon as the Mayor of Detroit hands Santa Claus the key to the city, the action does not cease, as the Detroit Lions kick off their annual Thanksgiving Day game just 30 minutes later at Ford Field.

While the history of football games on Thanksgiving dates back to the 1800s, the Lions didn’t start their Turkey Day tradition until 1934, after then-team owner George Richards decided to leverage the holiday to give the team a little boost in popularity.

The Lions faced off at home that year against the Chicago Bears, falling 16-13, but the game was a huge success.

That was due in part to the fact that Richards also owned a radio station that was a major affiliate of NBC.

Richards negotiated a deal that allowed the game to be broadcast on 94 NBC stations across the U.S., and a new tradition country-wide was born.

While there have been times throughout the years that Detroit could have lost one or both of its major Thanksgiving events, efforts from the community have allowed them to forge ahead.

When the parade was suffering from financial trouble in 1990, Art Van Furniture founder Art Van Elslander stepped in and wrote a personal check to prevent the event from being shut down.

About 15 years ago, there was a push from a handful of NFL owners to put the Detroit and Dallas Thanksgiving game on rotation, but they resolved the issue in 2006 by adding a rotating night game instead.

So it’s Detroit’s ability to maintain tradition and widespread respect for that history that are really at the core of why the the city gets the spotlight each Thanksgiving.

On Thursday when you cue up the parade and prepare to watch the Lions take on the Buffalo Bills, remember that those Detroit events are also part of Thanksgiving traditions in households across America.

….Just be a little thankful we don’t all have to share a turkey, too.

Featured Image Photo Credit: (Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports / Leon Halip/Getty Images)