Ahhhh, Thanksgiving. For many people, the last week has been a time of joyous celebration, reflection with gratitude on the past year, feasting with those closest to us, and appreciation for the blessings we have received. These traditions bring people closer together. During times of COVID-19, however, many of these traditions are simply impractical, and were moved to virtual zoom calls for the safety of the community. One tradition that still happened this year, unusual but well known, is the presidential turkey pardon. Every year, the President of the United States pardons two turkeys, but only one attends the speech and ceremony hosted at the White House. So where did this wild tradition come from? Who was the first president to officially pardon a turkey? And what exactly happens during this bizarre ceremony?
So two parties are at play when it comes to turkey pardoning. One is the National Turkey Federation, a nonprofit organization that works to advocate for America’s turkey industry. The National Turkey Federation selects two turkeys who are “worthy of being pardoned” from the dinner table and books them a reservation for a suite at the Willard InterContinental Washington Hotel, just across the street from the White House. The next day, these turkeys are brought to the White House, where the President invites a small audience and the press to the Rose Garden for a speech and a short exchange between the President and the turkey before the bird is officially pardoned. The pardoned turkeys are sent to a different place each year, whether it be a petting zoo, a natural reservation, etc.
So what happened this year? The President still pardoned two turkeys this Thanksgiving, humorously named Corn and Cob. After the President’s speech, discussing the success of the Dow Jones, beauty of the newly renovated Rose Garden, well wishes to all Americans, and a little bit about the history of pardoning the turkey, the President officially pardoned Corn, the turkey who attended the ceremony. These turkeys were then sent to Iowa State University and are currently being taken care of by the veterinarian program at ISU. The first president to pardon a turkey was Abraham Lincoln. However, this turkey was a Christmas turkey, not one for Thanksgiving. Why would Lincoln take this arbitrary action? Well, during his time, President Abraham Lincoln actually brought the live turkey to the White House in preparation for it to be butchered and eaten. Lincoln’s son, Tad Lincoln, had grown especially fond of this Christmas turkey, and when Abraham Lincoln noticed the bond between the two, he decided to officially pardon the bird from dinner tables. After Abe Lincoln’s turkey pardon, presidents began sporadically pardoning turkeys until President Truman’s presidency, when he set a trend that every president since has followed.
The presidential pardon of the turkey is such a silly, fun, and unusual tradition, and its roots are dug deep in American history.