7 Things You Need To Know About The Turkey Pardon

Big tom turkey and friends at Polyface Farm in Virginia
Big tom turkey and friends at Polyface Farm in Virginia | © J.H. Fearless/Flickr
Alexia Wulff

The annual turkey pardon has been a longstanding and uniquely strange tradition of the White House for decades. Turkeys are carefully chosen, and then they are sent to the White House, where in an official ceremony they are ‘pardoned’ by the President for crimes they have not committed – with some Presidents going as far as providing upscale accommodations for the turkeys the night before the clemency. Here are seven things you need to know about this amusing holiday tradition.

#1. The first Presidential turkey ‘pardon’ appeared as early as 1863.

In an 1865 dispatch, a White House reporter noted that Abraham Lincoln had granted freedom to a live turkey that was brought home for Christmas dinner after his son ‘interceded in behalf of his life.’

#2. Turkeys have been popular gifts to Presidents since the 1870s.

By the mid-1920s, turkey gifts had become an American symbol of holiday cheer.


#3. The turkey gifts were meant to promote the poultry industry.

But they also helped to maintain the bird as a staple in both Thanksgiving and Christmas cuisine.

#4. Despite a widely circulated belief, Harry S. Truman did not start this silly custom.

He was indeed the first President to receive a turkey from the Poultry and Egg National Board – as a protest to the White House’s ‘poultry-less Thursdays’ – but the two turkeys given to Truman did indeed end up on the dinner table.

President Harry S. Truman receiving a non-pardoned Thanksgiving turkey (this one a Bronze) from members of the Poultry and Egg National Board and other representatives of the turkey industry, outside the White House on November 16, 1949 | Public Domain/WikiCommons

#5. Presidents following may have been the catalysts in formalizing the tradition.

A Washington Post article in 1963 quotes President Kennedy as saying of the turkey: ‘Let’s keep him going.’ Richard Nixon is also claimed to have sent his turkey to a petting zoo, instead of having it for dinner.

President John F. Kennedy spares the turkey presented to him, 1963, only three days before his assassination.

#6. By 1989, the turkey pardon became a White House tradition.

After receiving a live turkey, George H.W. Bush ordered to ‘keep him going.’ And so, the turkey walked.

#7. Today, the event is run by the National Turkey Federation, who chooses the turkeys to be pardoned.

They arrive in a ‘presidential-style motorcade’ escorted by men dressed as Secret Service agents.

President Ronald Reagan pardons a turkey in the annual White House ceremony.

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