Every Thanksgiving, we can count on a few things: a spectacular Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the falling orange leaves outside, delicious food, and even a presidential pardon for a turkey.
Whether you’re a longtime fan of presidential turkey pardons or just learning about them for the first time, we’re taking you on a little history lesson about how this grand tradition began. At face value, it begs lots of questions like, “When did this start?” “Why?” and “Are they secretly eating these turkeys anyway?” (They’re not, don’t worry.) So let’s look back.
The tradition of turkeys being presented to U.S. presidents dates all the way back to Abraham Lincoln, who was once gifted a turkey for Christmas dinner whom his son Tad was so taken with that it turned into the family pet, Jack. But it would take many more administrations before the turkey pardon became an official tradition linked to Thanksgiving.
The National Turkey Federation, which presents the turkey to be pardoned each year, became involved in 1947, granting President Harry S. Truman two turkeys in 1948 which did not go on to be pardoned. In 1963, it was President John F. Kennedy who first decided to formally spare the turkey presented to him, and Presidents Nixon and Carter each pardoned a few turkeys too — then Ronald Reagan was the first to phrase his letting the turkey live as a “presidential pardon” in 1987, and George H.W. Bush codified it as tradition in 1989.
Ever since then, quite a few turkeys have been pardoned every year by U.S. Presidents with their families looking on — read on for a look back from JFK’s first pardon (just a few days before his assassination) to Joe Biden’s recent photo opp.
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