The Thanksgiving turkey pardon has a lengthy and disputed history.
A humorous and yes, slightly macabre, thanksgiving tradition, each president has added their own respective touches. From the political concerns of President Truman’s turkeys to the family involvement of President Obama’s pardoning, the Thanksgiving turkey pardon has become a mainstay of the fall holiday season.
Here are 5 little known facts about Thanksgiving turkeys and the presidents who pardon them.
While Harry Truman is often credited with starting the tradition of granting clemency to gobbler, some historians argue that the event dates back even further. According to White House records,
Abraham Lincoln first pardoned a turkey in 1863, years before Thanksgiving was even a truly popular American holiday.
2.Turkeys as Gifts
Beginning in the early 20th
century, it became popular for civic groups and organizations to mail the First Family a live turkey before the Thanksgiving holiday. These Thanksgiving gifts were the subject of considerable media attention. Turkeys arrived at the White House in elaborately decorated crates and accompanying notes of well wishes. One group even sent a turkey outfitted as a fighter pilot, complete with googles.
3.The Poultry Industry Strikes Back!
Though he is often given credit for starting the trend of presidential turkey pardons, Harry Truman is also famous for an ill-fated poultry proposal. In the wake of WWII, a rumor circulated widely that the president was proposing, on the eve of Thanksgiving, an effort to make Thursdays “poultry-less.” In a show of humorous protest, leaders of the poultry and egg industries conspired to mail President Truman crates of live chickens, dubbed “Hens for Harry.” While the attempt to make all Thursdays a day without poultry failed, the tradition of sending a President poultry during the holiday season certainly endured.
While the turkeys and “Hens for Harry” received by Harry Truman were likely not prepared in the White House kitchen, they were not officially pardoned. In fact, the idea of ceremoniously pardoning the Big Bird is first seen in the words of President John F. Kennedy. Presented with the typical pre-Thanksgiving turkey, the President reportedly declared “Let’s keep him going!” Reporters covering the event noted that the president had, in effect, “pardoned” the lucky fowl. Quickly, the practice of presidents formally granting freedom to turkeys began.
(Left: President Kennedy greets a pardoned turkey)
As the tradition of Presidential turkeys expanded into the George Bush administration, the traditional offering of a turkey began to draw the attention of animal rights groups. During the 1980s, activists began to gather immediately outside the White House gate, demanding an end to the practice of gifting the sitting president a Thanksgiving turkey. Holding a ceremony on the White House lawn only feet away from a crowd of angry protestors, President Bush formally “pardoned” the bird.
(Left: President Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia pardon a Turkey. Creative Commons
So who will be the lucky turkey this year? President Obama’s final turkey pardon is rapidly approaching. Last year’s ceremony featured two birds, Abe and Honest, who each weighed in at over 40 pounds!
The final pardoned turkey of Obama’s administration will certainly have much to be thankful for.