Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate traditions, whether they be about the food we eat or the people we gather with. At the White House, Thanksgiving traditions include a Presidential Proclamation and the historic pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey. But how historic is this tradition, and why is it even a tradition in the first place? 

White House, Washington D.C.

Hillbraith on Flickr

Rumors of pardoning a holiday turkey date back to Lincoln's time in office when his son Tad supposedly begged his dad to spare the life of a turkey who was meant for the dinner table. But this turkey was for Christmas and the pardoning was not made public.

Many claim that President Truman was the source of the modern day tradition. Most of these rumors stem from the fact that Truman was the first president to officially receive a bird from the egg and poultry board.

At the time, the government was encouraging "poultryless Thursdays," so many poultry producers retaliated by sending live birds to the White House on Thanksgiving.

coffee, beer, kettle
Parisa Soraya

The spectacle this created gave a reason for reporters to show up to the White House on Thanksgiving, thus establishing the tradition of media covering the White House Thanksgiving. 

Yet the two turkeys he ended up accepting in December 1948 for his Christmas dinner would also not be spared, as he told the media they would "come in handy" for the holiday.

The first documented pardoning of the turkey didn't take place until 1963 when President Kennedy decided to send his bird back to the farm. Around Nixon's time, presidents began sending their turkeys to a petting zoo after taking a photo with them, but there was no formal pardon.


Hey Paul on Flickr

It wasn't until George H. W. Bush pardoned the Thanksgiving turkey in 1989 that the tradition actually stuck. Every president since H. W. Bush has offically pardoned the Thanksgiving turkey.

President Obama decided he would pardon two turkeys the day before Thanksgiving since taking office. Last year, they were very appropriately named Honest and Abe. The public was given the opportunity to vote via Twitter which bird should be officially pardoned.  

Obama announced that Abe was chosen, thus making him TOTUS (Turkey of the United States). Both birds ended up at a farm in Virginia, but birds from years past have been sent to various petting zoos and even to Mount Vernon.  

File:Obama ThanksGiving Turkey Pardon 2009.jpg

Image from WikiCommons

In reality, this strange tradition is something relatively new to the White House and started as more of a photo op than official turkey pardon. It's President Obama's last year to impress us with witty turkey biographies and holiday well wishes, but he's rarely one to disappoint.