One of the more lighthearted White House events, the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation and Pardoning Ceremony, takes place each year just before the Thanksgiving holiday. During the ceremony, the President of the United States grants a presidential pardon to the turkey, fortunate enough to be selected as the National Thanksgiving Turkey.
This somewhat odd tradition has evolved through the years, with its earliest roots possibly dating back to the Lincoln administration. Although the details are not documented, President Lincoln is thought to have spared the life of a turkey at the request of his son, Tad, who wanted to keep it as a pet. Subsequent presidents were intermittently presented with both live and dressed Thanksgiving turkeys.
A Turkey Tradition is Hatched:
In 1947, the tradition stepped up a notch when members of the Poultry and Egg National Board and other turkey industry representatives presented President Harry Truman with the first National Thanksgiving Turkey. For several years, however, these less than fortunate prize turkeys usually ended up in the White House kitchen roasting pan.
The first record of a turkey being spared is from 1961 when President Kennedy decided not to eat that year's 55-pound tom turkey, saying, "We'll just keep him." The reprieved bird was returned to his farm home. On a somber note, the November 1963 Thanksgiving turkey presentation was one of President Kennedy's last Rose Garden appearances.
A Presidential Poultry Pardon:
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush started the tradition of an official presidential pardon for the National Thanksgiving Turkey with the words, "This fine tom turkey has been granted a presidential pardon as of right now." Since then, the tradition has continued every year, usually on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day.
The Pecking Order:
In addition to the actual National Thanksgiving Turkey, a second turkey is selected to serve as the first runner up each year, just in case the winner is not able to fulfill its duties. Both turkeys receive pardons.
Name That Turkey:
In past years, the names of the National Thanksgiving Turkeys and the alternates have been selected by various methods, including names chosen by members of the National Turkey Federation and votes cast by members of the public via White House website polls. Past winning names for the pair include dynamic duos such as Cobbler and Gobbler, Liberty and Peace, Apple and Cider, Pumpkin and Pecan, Marshmallow and Yam, Biscuits and Gravy and Stars and Stripes.
From the Frying Pan:
For about 15 years, all of the pardoned turkeys were retired to live leisurely lives at a Northern Virginia park, ironically named Frying Pan Park. From 2005 through 2009, the winners were flown to either Disneyland in California or Walt Disney World in Florida to "strut their stuff" as honorary Grand Marshals in the annual Thanksgiving Day Parades.
Beginning in 2010, the turkeys were transported to George Washington's Mount Vernon to live at historic estate's nationally recognized livestock facility.
To George Washington's Mount Vernon:
For the past few years, following the pardoning ceremony at the White House, the National Thanksgiving Turkey and alternate have been transported to George Washington's Mount Vernon, where they are welcomed in a special ceremony. Holiday visitors to Mount Vernon's Christmas at Mount Vernon celebration are able to see the turkey his pen on the Estate grounds. After the holidays the Thanksgiving Turkey and the alternate turkey live out their days at the historic estate's nationally recognized livestock facility. See a video of the 2011 Welcome at Mount Vernon Estate.