The History Of Pardoning The Thanksgiving Turkey Explained

For some Americans, the Thanksgiving holiday is a time to reflect on our shared history, to gather together with family, or to simply enjoy a big meal with turkey, stuffing, and all the rest. Like any tradition, though, there are a lot of myths and legends, as well as courtesies and customs surrounding the holiday. One of the most recognizable is the official White House pardoning of a turkey by whatever administration happens to be in office at the time.

Like the story of the Pilgrims and early colonists themselves, there are many different explanations of exactly why a sitting president pardons a turkey each year at the White House. Like many stories surrounding the American presidency, there's also some dispute over which stories are true and which ones miss the mark. According to White House History, though, one of the most common explanations for the official pardoning of the White House turkey tradition stretches all the way back to the 1860s. The truth is, the practice is much more modern than one might expect.

Abe Lincoln spared a turkey's life

According to Smithsonian Magazine, it is known that Abe Lincoln was the first recorded president to offer a reprieve to a holiday turkey. The thing is, though, the turkey wasn't meant for the Thanksgiving table, it was intended for Christmas instead. The bird was presented to the White House as a gift to the president for the holiday feast — a practice that would stretch all the way through the early 20th century from a variety of different farmers and producers — but at the behest of Lincoln's son Tad, this particular bird was given a second chance, and thus, lived to gobble another day.

Another common story surrounding the origin of the turkey pardoning involves Harry Truman, in an effort called "Hens for Harry." At the time, the White House was pushing "poultry-less Thursdays" as a means of conserving food following World War II, and since Thanksgiving always falls on a Thursday ... well, you see the dilemma. The Truman turkey came from the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation as a form of protest to the program. This is the beginning of the official turkey presentation at the White House, but there's no evidence Truman did anything other than eat any of the turkeys that crossed the threshold of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, according to White House History.

Kennedy and Reagan were also merciful

It wasn't until the Kennedy administration, though, that the word "pardon" came into parlance surrounding the Thanksgiving tradition, but all Kennedy meant at that time was that he, himself, would spare the bird and not personally eat the turkey presented to the president. It was, however, Ronald Reagan who first used the word "pardon," although jokingly, in reference to a turkey.  And as the Constitution Center reports, it was 1989 when the administration of George H.W. Bush specifically pardoned a turkey came, making the tradition far more modern than many might guess. 

The tradition "officially" begun by George H.W. Bush has stuck around to this very day. Even tradition-bucking presidents like Donald Trump followed the lead. Since then, though, many traditions and stories surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday have come under scrutiny in an effort to separate fact from fiction and for a more accurate retelling of the early Native American and colonial experience. The annual pardoning of the White House turkey, however, is one tradition that turkeys — at the very least — hope will continue.