Every year, days before Thanksgiving, the President of the United States officiates a ceremony to pardon a turkey. How did the tradition started?
It's well-known that the Thanksgiving celebrations can't start until the President makes the famous Pardoning the Turkey ceremony. But as traditional as it is, let's be honest, it may be one of the strangest ceremonies any President of the United States must attend. We've seen this. The President welcomes some guests, including children, he gives a short and often funny speech and then proceeds to pardon the turkey which is delivered by the National Turkey Federation. He mentions where the turkey (or turkeys on some occasions) is going to be sent, and then grants it Presidential Pardon. But what's the meaning of the celebration and who started it?
People gifting turkeys to the President during the Thanksgiving celebrations have been reported as far as the 1870s. They would gift well-fed turkeys for the presidents to dine on Thanksgiving. Around that date, a farmer from Rhode Island, Horace Vose, known as the King of Poultry, started sending his own turkeys to the White House and eventually became pretty much the face of the turkey gifting tradition, as well as a great publicity stunt for his business.
Vose's tradition with the White House lasted for some very profitable decades until 1913 when Vose passed. The next year, poultry farms started to dispute that honorable position sparking a publicity campaign all over the country showering the event with adjectives of patriotism and celebration. Turkeys became a symbol of good faith and cheer all over the United States.
[President Harry S. Truman at the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation]
Origins of the tradition
It has also been reported that it was no other than President Abraham Lincoln, the one to gran the first turkey 'clemency,' but there are not really records of the event, although it's very likely that he also received some turkeys as gifts during his term. With more evidence, though, we can say that the first President to 'pardon' a turkey, although not in the official pompous way we now know, was Harry S. Truman in 1947.
As it had been a tradition, he was presented with a turkey, but Truman wanted to add something new to the ceremony. So the one he was presented came from the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation. Another novelty he implemented to the tradition was to promote "Meatless Tuesdays" and "Poultryless Thursdays" sparking what would become a pardoning tradition. Naturally, this wasn't received very well by the people, and especially the poultry industry mainly because that year, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day were happening on Thursdays. Many manifestations took place all over the country.
[President John F. Kennedy at the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation]
The first attempts
Almost two decades after Truman's failed plan, during John F. Kennedy's presidency, the press started to use terms as pardon and reprieve for the traditional Presentation of the Turkey. In 1963, newspapers presented Kennedy with the turkey and a headline quoting him saying: "Let's keep him going." However, these 'pardonings' remained sporadic.
Later on, during Nixon's presidency, his wife would be the one receiving turkeys on his behalf. In 1973, she pardoned one of the turkeys and set it to the Oxon Hill Children's Farm. In 1978, the turkey presented to the First Lady Rosalynn Carter was sent to a mini zoo at the Evans Farm Inn. These set a precedent for pardoned turkeys to be sent to places where they would have a long-lasting happy life. By 1981, during Ronald Reagan's presidency, it became the norm.
[President George H. W. Bush at the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation]
The first official Pardoning the Turkey ceremony
These attempts set the foundations of a tradition that is still on the official agendas of every President of the United States, but it wouldn't be until 1989 when it was all settled. President George H. W. Bush teamed up with an organization of animal rights to present the very first official Pardoning of the Turkey. During his speech, he joked saying: "let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone's dinner table, not this guy [...] He's granted a Presidential pardon as of right now [...] and allow him to live out his days on a children's farm not far from here."
Bush's ceremony was replicated by every single president from then on. The ceremony has been evolving to the point that the last president, Donald Trump, even sent them to a luxurious hotel previous to the ceremony. For Biden's first Pardoning the Turkey ceremony, two turkeys, Peanut Butter and Jelly, were sent back to Indiana to Purdue University's Animal Sciences Research and Education Farm, where they'll live for the rest of their lives.
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