Freebird

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. 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.” Tragically, a week later, on November 22, Kennedy was assassinated and didn’t live to see Thanksgiving that year.

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 has started sending pardoned turkeys to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia. Obama joked in 2010 that the turkey pardoning ceremony is “one of the most important duties that I carry out as president.” The country’s interest in this event is evidenced by requests for the turkey to be a ‘spokesbird’ after the ceremony. 

Turkey Facts

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.”
  • The name for turkey may have originated with Christopher Columbus, who had thought that the land he discovered was India and the bird he discovered was a peacock. Therefore, he called the bird ‘tuka,’ which is ‘peacock’ in Tamil, a language spoken in India.
  • Others believe that the name turkey comes from the Native American name for turkey, which is ‘firkee.’
  • In 1970, 105 million turkeys were raised for Thanksgiving, and each bird had an average weight of 17 pounds. Over 1.7 billion pounds of turkey was consumed for Thanksgiving that year. In 2011, more than 248 turkeys are estimat3ed to be raised and an estimated of 6 billion pounds of turkey will be processed!

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