Turkey pardoning through the years
'Thanksgiving is a very special day for turkeys. Not a very good one, when you think about it.'
Gifting the White House poultry can be traced back to the 1800s, but the origins of the ceremonial presidential pardon of the National Thanksgiving Turkey might be more recent than you'd think. The ritual has been an American tradition for decades, evolving under the nation's leaders.
Here are a few notable presidential Thanksgiving turkey pardons over the years.
The first president to spare a turkey's life was the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, in 1863. The lucky bird was destined to be Christmas dinner, but Lincoln's son Tad begged his father to let it go, per The White House Historical Association. Tad had a special affinity for the bird and kept it as a pet, giving it the name Jack. After hearing his son's pleas for the pet, Lincoln decided to show mercy and freed the bird.
Harry S. Truman
Many people incorrectly attribute the tradition of Thanksgiving turkey pardoning to Harry S. Truman. While he was the first president to be gifted a turkey from the National Turkey Federation 75 years ago, there is no evidence that he pardoned any birds during his tenure as president. However, he started the tradition of appearing with the holiday fowl for a photo-op in 1947, per The History Channel. Truman's turkeys weren't lucky enough to escape their intended fate, though. In 1948, he notably said that the birds would come in handy for Christmas dinner.
John F. Kennedy
The first president to spare the tradition of Thanksgiving turkey was John F. Kennedy, at the 1963 presentation of the bird. Despite the fowl having a sign around its next that read "Good eating, Mr. President," Kennedy decided to return the turkey to the farm. "We'll just let this one grow," Kennedy said of the turkey. "It's our Thanksgiving present to him." A 1963 article from The Washington Post used the words "reprieve" and "pardon" to describe the act, though Kennedy did not.
Ronald Reagan was the first president to use the word pardon when talking about the National Thanksgiving Turkey in 1987 — albeit jokingly. At the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation in 1987, Reagan was trying to avoid questions about the Iran-Contra scandal. He dodged reporters' questions about whether he intended to pardon any of his aides implicated in the incident. When asked about the fate of the turkey he was gifted, Regan quipped, "I'll pardon him."
George H.W. Bush
The traditional ceremonial presidential pardon of the National Thanksgiving Turkey, as we've come to know it, was formalized by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. "But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone's dinner table, not this guy," Bush said during the presentation. "He's granted a presidential pardon as of right now — and allow him to live out his days on a children's farm not far from here."
Every president since then has followed the ritual of granting the Thanksgiving turkey a ceremonial presidential pardon.
George W. Bush
In 2004, George W. Bush's administration allowed Americans to vote online to choose the names for the two turkeys gifted by the National Turkey Federation, per a PBS report.
"This is an election year, and Biscuits has had to earn his spot at the White House. Biscuits and his running mate, Gravy, prevailed over the ticket of Patience and Fortitude," the younger Bush declared during the presentation.
The pair of turkeys that waited to be pardoned by Barack Obama in 2013 set another precedent for the ceremonial pardoning. That year Popcorn, the chosen National Thanksgiving Turkey, and the alternate, Caramel, were put up at the swanky Willard Hotel in Washington, DC. Since then, every pair of birds has waited out the ceremony in the upscale digs at the Willard.
"Generally speaking, Thanksgiving is a bad day to be a turkey. Especially at a house with two dogs. So I salute our two guests of honor, Caramel, and Popcorn, for their bravery," Obama told the audience at the White House.
Thanksgiving in 2020 came as the nation was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a year that was anything but typical, and with Donald Trump seemingly ignoring his defeat in the presidential election a few weeks prior, the president carried out the ceremony. After a Twitter poll chose Corn over his partner, Cob, Trump issued the ceremonial stay of execution in a much more subdued presentation than in previous years.
"Thanksgiving is a very special day for turkeys. Not a very good one, when you think about it," Trump said jokingly.
President Biden pardoned 2022's National Thanksgiving Turkey, Chocolate, and the alternate named Chip. His ritual featured a bevy of Thanksgiving puns as he winked at the recent 2022 midterm elections.
"The votes are in, they've been counted and verified, no ballot stuffing, no fowl play. The only red wave this season is going to be if German Shepherd Commander knocks over the cranberry sauce," Biden told the audience.