You’ll Have to Pardon My Turkey…

November 26, 2014

It’s one of Thanksgiving’s strangest traditions, and here’s how it got started.

Thanksgiving Turkey PardonThe National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation takes place every year a few days before the holiday and involves the President of the United States “pardoning” one of the birds slated for slaughter. The turkey is then moved to a new home where it will, presumably, live a long and enjoyable life instead of winding up on a platter in the White House’s State Dining Room. The rather weird tradition is widely believed to have begun during the Truman administration but the real story is a bit more complicated.

Back when Abraham Lincoln was president, his son, Tad, begged him to sign a presidential pardon for the turkey destined for their family’s Christmas dinner table….or so the story goes. Honest Abe agreed and the turkey lived. The tradition of presenting the president with a Thanksgiving turkey during an annual ceremony began with Harry S Truman in 1947. However, instead of pardoning his turkeys, he had them sent off to get plucked, stuffed, and cooked.

It wasn’t until John F. Kennedy became president that the rather morbid tradition was altered for the first time. When a rather gigantic, and frightening, 55-pound turkey was delivered to the White House in November 1963, Kennedy freaked out a bit. A sign around its neck reading “Good Eatin’ Mr. President” didn’t help matters. JFK allegedly sent it back after saying, “We’ll just let this one grow.” The Los Angeles Times declared his decision a “pardon” and a new tradition of the turkey pardon was born.

The turkey presentation continued as normal through the Nixon administration, although Nixon send some of his annual birds to a petting zoo outside of Washington, D.C. It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan took office that the term “pardon” was actually used in the annual ceremony. In 1987, while Reagan was embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, he pardoned a turkey named Charlie as a way to deflect speculation that he would pardon Oliver North.

The tradition became permanent when his successor, George H.W. Bush, assumed the presidency. Since then, some of the pardoned turkeys have been sent to live in the Disney theme parks in California and Florida where they’ve appeared as “Grand Marshals” in Thanksgiving Day parades.

If you think this is strange, at least the tradition doesn’t involve fake turkeys. Earlier this month, Seattle mayor Ed Murray officially pardoned a tofu-based, meat-free Tofurkey while promoting a local food drive.