Turkeys and Presidential Pardons

boy_riding_turkey happy thanksgiving

It seems that turkeys have long been considered appropriate gifts for US presidents. But in recent years, it has become customary for the president to pardon a live turkey which is presented to him the day before Thanksgiving. 

But one of the earliest stories about a turkey being saved from the president’s holiday table goes back to 1863. President Abraham Lincoln was given a live turkey which was meant to be his Christmas dinner. But his son, Tad, took the bird as his pet and Abe had to issue a “stay of execution” to spare Jack the Turkey.

I imagine it went something like this:

Tad’s Turkey

It’s early December in the Lincoln White House,
For Christmas dinner, they’re thinking of grouse.
There’s a knock at the door and what a surprise,
A big tom turkey in front of their eyes.

A gift for the Lincolns, there’s no mistake,
Oh what a Christmas dinner he’ll make.
But the celebration is still weeks away,
So Tad takes the turkey to the garden to play.

The turkey called Jack is Tad’s new best friend,
But everyone knows how this friendship will end.

As Christmas draws near, will Jack meet his fate?
Tad refuses to give up his cherished playmate.
He bursts through the door of his father’s den,
Where Abe’s in discussion with important men.

The meeting is halted, State business can wait,
Abe has to deal with Jack Turkey’s fate.
He takes out a pen, writes a note to his spouse,
“It looks like for Christmas, we’ll be having that grouse.”

— Margo Lestz

This is how the Lincoln family photo would have looked if it had been up to Tad.

Presidential Turkey Pardons

In 1947 the National Turkey Federation started an annual tradition of presenting a turkey to the White House the day before Thanksgiving. Most of these birds became presidential meals. But in 1963, when John F. Kennedy was presented with his turkey, he said, “Let’s just keep him.” 

He didn’t use the word “pardon,” but the newspapers reported the story as a presidential pardon. In 1989, George Bush Senior was the first US president to make an official turkey pardon. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barak Obama have all continued the tradition.

George W Bush and turkey pardon
One of the more humorous turkey pardon photos – with George W. Bush

The Turkeys

The presidential turkey and an alternate are selected as chicks and raised to be able to cope with crowds and noise in preparation for the pardoning ceremony. When they arrive in Washington, they spend a relaxing night in a local hotel. Even though only one of them attends the ceremony, the next day, they are both pardoned. After the event held in the White House Rose Garden, they are sent to Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home, where they enjoy their Christmas holiday. Then they go to a farm where they live out the rest of their natural lives.

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BOOKS – You can find more of my curious histories in my books.

Margo Lestz

Margo has authored four books about France. She has a BA in Liberal Studies with International Emphasis and enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.

6 comments

  1. Thanks so much for the kind words. Hope you will be having a nice Thanksgiving dinner. I found one here in Nice that is hosted by an American organization. I am keeping my fingers crossed for a pumpkin pie!

  2. Fun post Margo! Your talents seem to have no bounds! Love this…
    As always, you highlighted a little known detail in your story, this time about the yearly pardoned turkey at the White House.

    We go by the Mount Vernon estate every day or two, yet I did not know that here was the temporary home of the pardonees… I’ll have to keep watch for a turkey trying to shed his orange jumpsuit in the next few weeks! 😉

      1. Very interesting. Plus, as a bonus, there was a wonderful sourdough bread recipe that I am anxious to try out.
        I find this fascinating- someone thousands of miles away can find a relatively obscure local neighborhood newsletter to share with people based less than 5 miles from the source. What a resource this internet thing is! Thanks for sharing this.

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