Thanksgiving is almost here, a holiday that is both enthusiastically anticipated by some and, at the same time, contentious for others due to its origins of colonialism and exploitation of Native American people. For those who choose to celebrate, it is a time to spend quality time with family and to reflect on what we are grateful for, but it should also serve as an opportunity to acknowledge the problematic history of violence and erasure of Indigenous people that the tradition stems from.
With that acknowledgment, Thanksgiving is also a day that gives us a reason to gather with our loved ones around a table and feast on warm savory stuffing, sweet, buttery yams with marshmallows on top, and for many families, the star of the show: the Thanksgiving turkey.
According to the University of Illinois, Americans eat approximately 46 million turkeys during the holiday. Yet, among the many turkeys that do end up on dining tables, there have been a few that have escaped this fate with the president’s yearly National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation ceremony. The turkey craze phenomenon had me curious as to when the Presidential Turkey Pardoning tradition began, who the first president to decide to spare a lucky bird’s life was, and what actually happens to pardoned turkeys.
What is the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation?
If you haven’t heard about this unusual American tradition, every year around Thanksgiving the president is gifted one or two live turkeys by the National Turkey Federation (NTF). Typically, the selection process is as follows: 50 to 80 birds from the farm of the current NTF chairperson are chosen to be familiarized with loud noises and large crowds, then 10 to 20 of the best-behaved birds are chosen, which is finally narrowed down to two finalists. These turkeys, usually Broad Breasted White male turkeys, are then named by White House staff from the choices presented by schoolchildren from the turkey’s home state. The turkeys then travel to Washington, and stay at the Willard InterContinental Washington Hotel before they are presented to the current president, who gives a brief speech pardoning them from their typical Thanksgiving demise.
Who was the first president to pardon the bird?
Technically, the first turkey to be pardoned was not a Thanksgiving turkey but instead a Christmas turkey. When Abraham Lincoln was in office, his young son Tad grew fond of a turkey he named Jack, meant to be prepared for Christmas dinner. Instead, Tad cared for Jack as a pet, and Lincoln was persuaded to free the bird for his son’s sake.
Beginning in the 1870s, it became a tradition for presidents to receive live turkeys when Rhode Island poultry dealer Horace Vose sent them as gifts every year until he died in 1913. However, Vose did not necessarily send them with the intention that presidents would pardon them. Neither did the National Turkey Federation nor the Poultry and Egg National Board in 1946, when they began continuing the tradition of gifting turkeys to the current president. The first president to receive a turkey from them, President Harry S. Truman, was presented with a turkey in 1947 after much criticism for trying to push “Meatless Tuesdays” and “Poultryless Thursdays” to conserve grain for foreign aid campaigns. Truman happily accepted the turkey and stated that it “would come in handy” for the holidays.
It wasn’t until November 19, 1963, only three days before his assassination, that John F. Kennedy decided to take pity on a 55-pound turkey that had been affixed with a sign labeled “Good Eating, Mr. President!” Kennedy responded with a smile: “We’ll just let this one grow. It’s our Thanksgiving present to him.” The thankful turkey was sent to live out the remainder of its days on a farm in California. Similarly, during Nixon’s presidency in 1973, First Lady Patricia Nixon pardoned a turkey on the president’s behalf and sent the bird to the Oxon Hill Children’s Farm, and in 1978, First Lady Rosalynn Carter also had mercy on a turkey that was sent to Evans Farm Inn.
President Ronald Reagan also spared turkeys during his presidency by sending them to farms and zoos, and is noted as being the first to use the term “pardon” when referring to his decision to allow the turkey to live. (Although he was a bit more tight-lipped regarding the word around a more serious topic: whether he was going to pardon his aides accused of secret arms deals during the Iran-Contra scandal.)
When did the tradition officially begin?
Although many presidents had allowed their turkeys to live past the holidays, the president who officially made it the lasting tradition it remains is President George H. W. Bush in 1989, when he famously proclaimed, “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.” Ever since then, presidents have honored the ritual, one that those fortunate turkeys surely appreciate. Or do they?
What happens to the few “lucky” turkeys?
If you’ve been imagining some turkey oasis that has harbored all of the saved turkeys throughout history, I’m sorry to disappoint. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been one specific haven that all of the turkeys have been sent to. Instead, they have been sent to a multitude of different locations: various farms, Mount Vernon (the home of George Washington), universities like Iowa State University, Purdue University, and Virginia Tech, and even Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World Resort to serve as grand marshals of Disney’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Sadly, many of these supposed “sanctuaries” are not conducive to the ultimate happiness and health of the saved turkeys.
Although the turkeys are usually provided bedding, heat, water, food and outdoor access, according to Green Matters, the pardoned birds are not necessarily retiring in complete peace. Despite being saved from ending up on someone’s dinner plate, those who end up residing at universities will be studied by students and professors and will occasionally be forced to attend fairs and other events in which they will be presented to the public.
Unfortunately, turkeys usually don’t live too long after they are pardoned because they were raised to grow larger than their organs can sustain. Poultry immunologist and Virginia Tech professor Rami Dalloul explains that although a wild turkey’s lifespan can be up to 15 years, those bred for consumption are typically slaughtered at around 14 weeks of age when they weigh between 12 and 15 pounds. Therefore, the turkeys that are picked to be pardoned are already at an unhealthy weight, causing them to have a shortened lifespan. The real reason why two birds are generally pardoned is because it’s likely that one may die before the ceremony even takes place, and in that case, the second can be used as a “backup.”
What do we know about the 2023 pardoned turkeys?
As this tradition seems to have no end in sight any time soon, here is what we know about this year's event so far. President Biden will pardon two turkeys from Jennie-O Turkey Store, a Hormel subsidiary out of Minnesota. They will be welcomed by a red carpet covered in wood chips set by the staff at the Willard InterContinental Washington Hotel, where past turkeys have been hosted for the past 15 years. The public doesn’t know the names of the two birds, although past name duos have included Peanut Butter and Jelly and Chocolate and Chip, nor do we know where the two will reside after their presidential pardon ceremony. Let’s hope that wherever they are placed, they are treated with the respect and attention they deserve and can rest peacefully until the end of their days.