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:
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
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.
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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