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Why does the president pardon a turkey? Behind the White House Thanksgiving tradition

For several decades at the White House a corny ceremony has taken place where the president pardons a turkey or two but subjects the public to bad puns.

The story behind the presidential turkey pardon

Thanksgiving is a time of gratitude for Americans to celebrate all that we have as well as sit down with friends and family for a bountiful feast. However, for turkeys it is anything but a holiday with around 46 million ending up as the main course on dinner tables across the United States.

That said though, there are a handful that can be thankful each year as they are spared, given a pardon from the fate that awaits so many of their kind. For decades, a tradition has been carried out at the White House where one to two turkeys receive a presidential pardon and are allowed to live out the rest of their natural life.

Over the years though, a mythology about the origins of the quirky tradition has taken root. Here’s a look at when and where the tradition began.

You might also be interested in: Do other countries celebrate Thanksgiving? Which ones?

Why does the president pardon a turkey? Behind the White House Thanksgiving tradition

President Biden once again this year presided over the annual White House turkey pardoning ceremony. In his speech he said that it was the 76th year that it has been carried out, dating the presidential clemency back to the administration of Harry S Truman.

However, that is just another bit of mythmaking according to the White House Historical Association. The Truman Library & Museum disputes this, pointing out that he was simply the first president to receive a yearly offering of a turkey from the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation.

The annual donation was actually in protest to a White House campaign to make Thursdays “poultryless” in 1947 but Thanksgiving, as always, Christmas and New Year’s Day all fell on Thursday that year. The National Turkey Federation has continued the tradition to this day. So when did the actual White House turkey pardoning ceremony begin?

The White House turkey pardon becomes a tradition

Prior to 1947, gifting a turkey to the US president can be traced back to the 1870s. But besides a story of most likely dubious authenticity that President Lincoln gave a gobbler clemency in 1863, turkeys given to the White House sometimes were or were not consumed by the residents at the time.

Actual presidential pardons were not mentioned, but in 1963 the Washington Post reported that President Kennedy said “Let’s keep him going” of the gifted turkey and used both the words “pardon” and “reprieve” in the article.

In 1973, First Lady Patricia Nixon had the annual donation sent to the Oxon Hill Children’s Farm. First Lady Rosalynn Carter made a similar gesture in 1978, sending the bird to a mini zoo at Evans Farm Inn. After 1981, under Ronald Regan that became the common practice, and the presentation ceremony began to acquire its form and place in the collective consciousness.

President George W Bush is credited with making the official annual presidential pardon of a turkey the tradition it is today. In 1989, with animal rights activists protesting nearby, he assured the assembled crowd, and the “fine tom turkey,” that at least that one was not destined for anyone’s dinner table.

“He’s granted a Presidential pardon as of right now,” Bush said. Adding that the gobbler would “live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”

Nowadays, the White House is presented with two turkeys each year and their names are chosen by White House staff from names suggested by school children from the state where the birds were raised. After their pardoning they are sent to a university near their hometown to be cared for during the remainder of their natural life.