Thanksgiving Turkey and Traditions

Posted by on Nov 21, 2023 in Current Events, People and Culture, United States

Americans love turkey on Thanksgiving, and it’s only fitting that the president pay homage to one of the countries dearest traditions. Just look at some of these turkey facts through American history.

  • One of the country’s founding fathers Benjamin Franklin had proposed the turkey as the United States’ national bird, instead of the bald eagle. Franklin thought the bald eagle had “bad moral character,” saying, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”
  • Don’t believe the myth of turkey and tryptophan. This Health Care Triage video takes on this holiday myth:

Thanksgiving has been observed by some of America’s earliest leaders. In recent years, the president has received a turkey from a farmer who raises turkeys, but instead of eating the turkey, the president sets it free. This tradition is a fun way the president celebrates the Thanksgiving holiday.

Bush Starts the Tradition

In the past, presidents and their families often ate these pardoned turkeys on Thanksgiving. This officially changed in 1989 when President George H. W. Bush said the turkey “would not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy. He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.” A pardon is freedom from punishment. When the president pardons those in jail or prison, they are set free. When the turkey gets a pardon, it means the president won’t eat it.

Although President Bush was the first White House occupant to officially pardon a turkey, there are several instances in our nation’s history in which a president has spared a turkey. Abraham Lincoln—the president who made Thanksgiving a national holiday—may have interrupted a cabinet meeting in 1863 to save a turkey named Jack from execution because his son had befriended the bird. (But this sounds a bit more like a national myth than something based in fact.) John F. Kennedy was presented a turkey in 1963 but he suggested that the farmer and his family who donated the bird should keep it and “it’s our Thanksgiving present to him.”

Pardons Today

The turkey pardon has gotten bigger since 1989. In 1990 the pardoned poultry was sent to a farm park in northern Virginia. Today, the turkey spends the night before the official ceremony feasting on corn and soybeans in a Washington, D.C., hotel. From 2005 to 2009, the pardoned turkey was the Grand Marshal in the Disney Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the lucky bird got to retire to Disneyland’s Big Thunder Ranch.

President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump sent pardoned turkeys to the Gobbler’s Rest area on the campus of Virginia Tech. In 2002, President Joe Biden explained that last year’s turkeys ( named Chocolate and Chip) were going to the poultry science department at North Carolina University after they were pardoned.

For more information on the history of the turkey pardoning ceremony, visit this archived White House link.

The Great Thanksgiving Listen

Another part of the United States’ Thanksgiving tradition is spending time with your extended family. Thanksgiving is often a time when families travel to see one another and celebrate. When you get together with your relatives, why not spend some time listening to your older family members and learning about the past?

If you really want to make this family time special, ask your relative if you can make a recording of your conversation and save it for future use. If you get your relative’s permission, you can even make the recording part of the Great Thanksgiving Listen project. The interview will be added to the StoryCorps Archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress!

Learn more about the Great Thanksgiving Listen project by watching this short video.