NEW YORK -- Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began its spectacular promenade through Manhattan as scheduled Thursday, defying high winds that had threatened to ground its massive balloons for the first time in more than 40 years.

The decision to float the balloons came early Thursday, as police, parade officials and meteorologists eyed forecasts that had called for sustained winds of more than 20 mph and gusts exceeding 30 mph. The parade's balloons are not allowed to fly if winds are higher than 23 mph and gusts exceed 34 mph.

The rule was adopted after the 1997 parade, when fierce winds caused the Cat in the Hat balloon to careen into a lamppost, sending debris to the ground that left one spectator with critical head injuries. The same year, police stabbed the Barney balloon into a flat, rubbery mess after it also threatened to become a danger in winds that exceeded 40 mph.

This year, the winds that buffeted the city through the night died down by morning, and the dozens of handlers assigned to guide each balloon along the 2.5-mile-long route held onto the tethers attached to each balloon as they were slowly lifted into the air.

This year, there are 16 balloons, all of which spent the night weighted down with sandbags and trussed like turkeys on two streets at the start of the parade route. Most are three to five stories long and more than 30 feet wide. 

The parade was first held in 1924 using live animals from the Central Park Zoo. Three years later,
Felix the Cat became the first balloon floated at the parade, which begins at Central Park West and 77th Street and makes its way into midtown Manhattan. About 30 floats are also part of the parade, along with marching bands and entertainers.

Miraculously, weather has rarely wreaked havoc on the event and has never forced its cancellation, but in 1971 bad weather forced officials to keep the balloons grounded. 

In 1957, according to Macy’s, some spectators were drenched when rain filled the Popeye balloon’s cap and poured down on them. In 2005, a balloon sponsored by M&M caught on a streetlight and sent debris onto spectators, but nobody was seriously injured.