The Presidential Turkey Pardon Ceremony is one of the few moments of levity at the White House, where usually the business of running the county is the top priority. But just for a few minutes on the day before Thanksgiving, POTUS gets to laugh during the Presidential Turkey Pardon Ceremony.
Here’s a look at the history of the ceremony.
1. The Origin for the Ceremony Goes Back to Abraham Lincoln’s Decision to Stop a Turkey From Being Killed for Son Tad
The origin of the turkey pardoning ceremony dates back to 1863. According to the White House Historical Association, Lincoln granted a turkey clemency in 1863 to please his son Tad. However, the turkey was going to be killed for Christmas dinner, not Thanksgiving.
White House reporter Noah Brooks didn’t report on the incident until two years later, writing that “a live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln’s son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. . . . [Tad’s] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared.”
2. Harry S. Truman Wasn’t the First President to Pardon a Turkey – It Was John F. Kennedy
The myth that President Harry S. Truman pardoned the first turkey is not correct. It’s rooted in the fact that the National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board began providing turkeys to Presidents in 1946, when Truman was in the White House. However, since there was a photo of Truman receiving a turkey in 1947, the idea that he was the first to pardon one was born.
As History.com notes, the first president to pardon a turkey was John F. Kennedy, who did so on November 19, 1963, days before his assassination on November 22. Kennedy pardoned a 55 lbs. turkey.
“The Library’s staff has found no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings which refer to Truman pardoning a turkey that he received as a gift in 1947, or at any other time during his Presidency,” Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum archivists said. The myth is so prevalent that the library has a whole webpage devoted to it.
3. George H.W. Bush Is Responsible for Turning it Into an Annual Tradition
The first turkey pardon ceremony like the one we have today was in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush pardoned one.
However, it was Ronald Reagan who was the first president who actually mentioned pardoning a turkey. When the National Turkey was presented to him in 1987, he tried to avoid questions of the Iran-Contra scandal. “I’ll pardon him,” Reagan jokingly said of the Turkey.
The Washington Post noted in 2007 that there is no evidence that Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter pardoned turkeys.
4. The National Turkey Federation Raises the Birds for the Presidential Ceremony, but They Don’t Last Long Afterwards
It’s up to the National Turkey Federation to provide the White House with the National Turkey. According to the group, there were more than 233.1 million turkeys raised in 2015 and 212 million of them were eaten in the U.S. Thankfully, because of the president, at least two of them were saved.
Sadly, turkeys don’t live very long, so pardoning a turkey only gives them a couple more years at the most. According to National Geographic, they live between three and four years.
5. The Obama Daughters Were Criticized for Not Enjoying the 2014 Ceremony
While most of us find the ceremony fun, Malia and Sasha Obama famously did not at the 2014 ceremony. After all, they had to spend their day off from school listening to their dad talk about a turkey. One Republican congressman’s communications director complained about their behavior and resigned over her comments.
Last year, they were a bit more jovial. ““It is hard to believe that this is my seventh year of pardoning turkeys. Time flies, even if turkeys don’t,” Obama joked, which earned a laugh from his daughters.