5 fun facts about the annual turkey pardon

The annual presidential pardoning of turkeys at the White House has a long-standing history that is marked by presidents cracking lighthearted jokes, nicknaming the turkey and commemorating Thanksgiving.

President Biden celebrated his 81st birthday Monday by pardoning two turkeys. The Minnesota turkeys, “Liberty” and “Bell,” were pardoned during a ceremony at the White House on Monday, where Biden said the turkeys loved honey crisp apples, ice hockey, the state’s thousand lakes and the Mall of America.

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Here’s five fun facts about the annual turkey pardoning:

There’s disagreement over when the tradition started

There have been disputes over when the annual turkey pardoning began. Biden said Monday’s ceremony was the 76th anniversary of the decades-long pardoning ceremony for the White House, suggesting that former President Truman established the tradition in 1947.

While some have claimed that Truman kickstarted the “pardoning” tradition, the White House Historical Association has raised doubts about such claims. The association notes that while Truman was the first president to participate in an official turkey presentation from the poultry industry in 1947, the actual “pardoning” of the Thanksgiving bird was still a rare occasion.

The association said that Truman also accepted two turkeys in December 1948, but that there was no sign of a presidential pardon. Instead, he said that the two birds would “come in handy” for Christmas dinner.

While President Kennedy and President Nixon appeared to spare turkeys at some points during their time in office, it wasn’t until President Reagan’s term in 1981 that sending a turkey to a farm every year would become the norm, the association noted. President George H.W. Bush further formalized the turkey pardoning in 1989, when he gave the turkey a presidential pardon to go live on a children’s farm.

Some have suggested that the origin of the turkey pardoning dates back to President Lincoln granting clemency to a turkey in 1863. However, the White House Historical Association said this account is “likely apocryphal.”

There’s a long history of turkey nicknames 

In recent years, both the chosen and the alternate turkeys have been pardoned by the sitting president and have been presented to the White House with clever nicknames for the duo.

Here are some of the fun turkey names over the years:

  • “Marshmallow” and “Yam,” pardoned by former President George W. Bush in 2005

  • “Tater” and “Tot,” pardoned by former President Obama in 2016

  • “Drumstick” and “Wishbone,” pardoned by former President Trump in 2017

  • “Peanut Butter” and “Jelly,” pardoned by Biden in 2021

Presidents have been gifted turkeys since the 1800s

Accounts of gifting presidents turkeys can be found dating back until at least the 1870s, when Rhode Island poultry dealer Horace Vose first gifted the Thanksgiving bird to President Grant in 1873.

The White House Historical Association said that Vose took great pride in choosing what bird he would send to the president — a tradition that he would continue over decades. He prepared the turkeys, which were never less than 30 pounds, and shipped them in a box to the president at the White House.

In 1914, the White House began allowing anyone to gift the president a turkey. The association said that the turkey gifts became “established as a national symbol of good cheer.”

The presidential flock of turkeys is well trained

The National Turkey Federation chairman chooses a home state turkey farmer every year to raise a “presidential flock” and National Thanksgiving Turkey, according to its website. Every year, the federation accepts an invitation from the White House to present the turkeys.

According to the federation, the presidential flock of turkeys is raised similarly to all the turkeys raised in the U.S. for consumers, including being protected from extreme weather conditions and potential predators, being able to roam around and having access to water and feed.

However, the presidential flock is also trained at a young age for media appearances, including flashing camera lights and standing on a table. The federation said that the birds “often listen to music” to help them acclimate to the noise of a crowd.

Steve Lykken, Jennie-O Turkey Store president and National Turkey Federation chairman, said “Liberty” and “Bell” are “Swifties,” in reference to singer Taylor Swift, and that “they do enjoy some Prince.”

Turkey pardoning as a source of humor for presidents

Presidents usually take advantage of the lighthearted ceremony to crack some jokes in front of the press. Obama was known for loading his remarks with puns and “dad jokes” at his ceremonies.

“No way I’m cutting this habit cold turkey,” Obama said during the 2016 turkey pardoning. “I know there’s some bad ones in here, but this is the last time I’m doing this, so I’m not leaving any room for leftovers.”

“Yes we cran,” he later added, chuckling. “Let’s get on with the pardoning — everybody knows that Thanksgiving traffic can put people in a fowl mood.”

The following year, Trump joked that while he was “very active” in overturning Obama’s policies, overturning turkey pardons would not be one of them.

“However, I have been informed by the White House counsel’s office that Tater and Tot’s pardons cannot, under any circumstances, be revoked,” he said, referring to the turkeys pardoned by Obama the previous year.

And on Monday, Biden poked fun at his age while pardoning the turkeys. He noted that it’s the 76th anniversary of the tradition.

“I want you to know I wasn’t there the first one; I was too young to make it up,” he said.

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