hanksgiving is a beloved tradition in America. A time where we show our gratitude, unite with friends and family, watch a game or a parade, and of course, devour a delicious turkey dinner with all the trimmings.
But there’s another tradition within the larger tradition of Thanksgiving: the presidential pardoning of the turkey. Each year, our commander-in-chief spares one (or two, in some years) lucky turkeys from the horde of nearly 50 million birds that are served up for dinner. It’s a heartwarming moment that we’re all entertained by, but where, exactly, did this custom originate?
The most popular theory holds that 19th-century poultry farmers near Washington, D.C. started giving the White House turkeys as annual Thanksgiving gifts. Soon, other parties joined in, with various civic groups ranging from the American Legion to the Girl Scouts gifting turkeys to the President, establishing the tradition as a national symbol of good cheer.
Eventually, the national poultry and egg board got involved, and donated a 42-pound Texas tom turkey to Harry Truman in 1947. Although Truman was photographed with the bird, he never actually pardoned it, contradicting theories that claim he originated the tradition. But with this happening, the image of a president posing with a turkey on Thanksgiving had been established.
In 1963, President Kennedy was given a massive, 55-lb turkey which had a sign on it reading “Good Eatin’ Mr. President.” Kennedy decided against eating the bird, saying “We’ll let this one grow,” and the turkey was spared. But a formal pardoning had yet to happen still.
Enter Ronald Reagan. In 1987, the Great Communicator received a turkey named Charlie. This was in the midst of the Iran-Contra affair, where Reagan was asked if he would pardon Oliver North. Now the “pardoning” idea was front and center. So to deflect those questions, Reagan humorously stated that he would pardon Charlie, and presto—there you have it. Charlie was promptly sent to a petting zoo to live out his days.
From there, the phenomenon grew more prevalent, with Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, making it an annual tradition. Since then, at least one of the turkeys given to the President has been spared. In fact, many of the pardoned gobblers were sent to Disneyland to serve as honorary marshals of Disney’s Thanksgiving Day parade, supplanting Donald Duck as the most preeminent fowl in the Magic Kingdom, at least for a day.
In the end, this time-honored photo-op sprang from the very nature of Thanksgiving, wherein we give thanks for the comforts we are so fortunate to enjoy here in America. It’s only fair that we return the favor to the turkey itself, and let these noble fellows enjoy a bit of kindness in return.
What do you think about this tradition? Share your thoughts in the comments below.