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The History Behind the Annual White House Turkey Pardon

Author: Scarinci Hollenbeck|November 24, 2020

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed a lot in 2020, one holiday tradition will continue…

The History Behind the Annual White House Turkey Pardon

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed a lot in 2020, one holiday tradition will continue…

The History Behind the Annual White House Turkey Pardon

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed a lot in 2020, one holiday tradition will continue

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed a lot in 2020, one holiday tradition will continue. On November 24, President Donald Trump will “pardon” a White House turkey.

This year’s turkeys were raised by the chairman of the National Turkey Foundation, Ron Kardel, an Iowa turkey farmer. Once they arrive in Washington, D.C., the turkeys will stay at the Willard Hotel and then proceed to the White House on Tuesday for the official ceremony. During the annual tradition, one turkey will become the National Thanksgiving Turkey, and the other will serve as the alternate. After the “pardon,” both turkeys will spend the rest of their lives at Iowa State University.

So how did this become an annual Thanksgiving tradition?

The roots of the annual White House turkey pardon date back centuries. However, it didn’t become an “official” ceremony until 1989 under President George H.W. Bush.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln reportedly granted clemency to a turkey, an event that was recorded in an 1865 dispatch by White House reporter Noah Brooks. He wrote: “A live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln’s son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. . . . [Tad’s] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared.”

Over the years, turkey farmers often gifted turkeys to U.S. presidents. According to the White House Historical Association, “poultry gifts were frequently touched with patriotism, partisanship, and glee.” In 1921, an American Legion post decorated the crate of a turkey sent from Mississippi to Washington with patriotic bunting, while a Harding Girls Club in Chicago dressed up its bird as a flying ace, even adorning it with goggles. First Lady Grace Coolidge accepted a turkey from a Vermont Girl Scout in 1925.

While the White House accepted turkeys, the act of “pardoning” them was not a tradition until much later. In 1963, the Washington Post used the terms “pardon” and “reprieve” in an article in which President John F. Kennedy said of the turkey, “Let’s keep him going.” First Lady Patricia Nixon accepted turkeys on behalf of President Richard Nixon and then sent them to the Oxon Hill Children’s Farm. First Lady Rosalynn Carter sent the turkey presented to President Jimmy Carter to a mini zoo at Evans Farm Inn. However, there was no official “pardoning” of the birds.

While President Ronald Reagan solidified the practice of sending the turkeys to a farm, the White House Historical Association maintains that the formal act of pardoning a turkey gelled by 1989, when President George H. W. Bush, with animal rights activists picketing nearby, quipped, “But 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.”

Although 2020 has been a challenging year, it has also made us all a little more grateful. Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Scarinci Hollenbeck!

The History Behind the Annual White House Turkey Pardon

Author: Scarinci Hollenbeck
The History Behind the Annual White House Turkey Pardon

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed a lot in 2020, one holiday tradition will continue

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed a lot in 2020, one holiday tradition will continue. On November 24, President Donald Trump will “pardon” a White House turkey.

This year’s turkeys were raised by the chairman of the National Turkey Foundation, Ron Kardel, an Iowa turkey farmer. Once they arrive in Washington, D.C., the turkeys will stay at the Willard Hotel and then proceed to the White House on Tuesday for the official ceremony. During the annual tradition, one turkey will become the National Thanksgiving Turkey, and the other will serve as the alternate. After the “pardon,” both turkeys will spend the rest of their lives at Iowa State University.

So how did this become an annual Thanksgiving tradition?

The roots of the annual White House turkey pardon date back centuries. However, it didn’t become an “official” ceremony until 1989 under President George H.W. Bush.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln reportedly granted clemency to a turkey, an event that was recorded in an 1865 dispatch by White House reporter Noah Brooks. He wrote: “A live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln’s son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. . . . [Tad’s] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared.”

Over the years, turkey farmers often gifted turkeys to U.S. presidents. According to the White House Historical Association, “poultry gifts were frequently touched with patriotism, partisanship, and glee.” In 1921, an American Legion post decorated the crate of a turkey sent from Mississippi to Washington with patriotic bunting, while a Harding Girls Club in Chicago dressed up its bird as a flying ace, even adorning it with goggles. First Lady Grace Coolidge accepted a turkey from a Vermont Girl Scout in 1925.

While the White House accepted turkeys, the act of “pardoning” them was not a tradition until much later. In 1963, the Washington Post used the terms “pardon” and “reprieve” in an article in which President John F. Kennedy said of the turkey, “Let’s keep him going.” First Lady Patricia Nixon accepted turkeys on behalf of President Richard Nixon and then sent them to the Oxon Hill Children’s Farm. First Lady Rosalynn Carter sent the turkey presented to President Jimmy Carter to a mini zoo at Evans Farm Inn. However, there was no official “pardoning” of the birds.

While President Ronald Reagan solidified the practice of sending the turkeys to a farm, the White House Historical Association maintains that the formal act of pardoning a turkey gelled by 1989, when President George H. W. Bush, with animal rights activists picketing nearby, quipped, “But 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.”

Although 2020 has been a challenging year, it has also made us all a little more grateful. Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Scarinci Hollenbeck!

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