President Joe Biden pardons Peanut Butter, the national Thanksgiving turkey, during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021. Biden is joined by, from left, Phil Seger, Chairman of the National Turkey Federation, and Andrea Welp, turkey grower from Indiana.
It’s customary for the president of the United States to spare the life of a turkey each year for Thanksgiving. But when and how did the strange tradition begin?
Harry Truman often gets credit for being the first U.S. president to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey.
While Truman was the first to receive a ceremonial turkey from the chairman of the National Turkey Federation, the Truman Library has said there is no proof he pardoned the bird. The turkey presented to Truman in 1947 more than likely ended up on the White House dinner table.
Some versions of the history of the turkey pardon go back to 1863 during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. According to the White House Historical Association, Lincoln’s son Tad was particularly fond of a turkey that was intended to be cooked for Christmas — not Thanksgiving — dinner.
White House reporter Noah Brooks wrote later in 1865 that “a live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln’s son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life … [Tad’s] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared.”
As far as Thanksgiving turkeys go, President John F. Kennedy was the first to pardon a bird sent over for dinner.
After being presented with a turkey complete with a sign that read “Good eating, Mr. President,” Kennedy responded by saying, “We’ll just let this one grow.” It was the LA Times that deemed the act a “presidential pardon.”
In 1987, Ronald Reagan was the first president to actually use the word “pardon” while being presented with the annual Thanksgiving turkey, according to NPR. George H.W. Bush later made the action a formal event.
Here’s a look at three decades of presidential turkey from Truman to Biden