Words by Natalia Gonzales
Graphic by Aspasia Celia Tsampas
Thanksgiving is filled with different traditions that vary from household to household. Some families break the turkey’s wishbone, others watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and some simply take the week off to go on vacation. But, whether or not you have Thanksgiving traditions, most can agree that the White House’s Presidential Turkey Pardon is, by far, the most bizarre Thanksgiving tradition in the United States.
In recent years, this tradition has captured the curiosity of the public and is now a national phenomenon. It has become a turkey beauty pageant. The turkeys are given names. They stay in the best hotels. There are even polls on Twitter for which birds should be pardoned.
Last year, the “Presidential Flock” of 50 turkeys hatched in July. The two best turkeys from the flock were selected to travel to Capitol Hill. From birth, the birds in the flock are prepared for potential stardom. They are trained to be acclimated to the sounds of an audience, bright lights, and having to stand still during the ceremony.
Last Thanksgiving, ‘Peas’ and ‘Carrots’ were selected from the Presidential Flock to travel to D.C. and receive clemency. In 2016, under Barack Obama, it was ‘Tater’ and ‘Tot’ who received four-star accommodations at The Intercontinental Hotel, the night before their big day. In the end, both turkeys are pardoned and sent to “Gobbler’s Rest” at Virginia Tech, but only one is given the official title.
The origin of this tradition is unclear, but the first president to unofficially pardon a turkey was allegedly Abraham Lincoln, who instructed the White House to save a bird that was gifted to him. Turkeys have been sent as gifts to American Presidents since the 1860s, typically arriving in elaborate crates and costumes. It wasn’t until 1989 that President George H. W. Bush made the presidential pardoning of a turkey an official event. President Bush told animal rights activists protesting outside the White House that the turkey would be granted a “Presidential pardon” and would “live out his days on a children’s farm.” Since then, the tradition has taken place every year.
This year, President Donald Trump will either pardon “Bread” or “Butter,” who as of Monday, November 25th, have officially arrived in Capitol Hill where they will remain until their big day this Tuesday, November 26th. If you want to watch the president and first lady present the National Thanksgiving Turkey, you can stream the festivities online here at 2 pm.
It’s morbid, in a way, to have a tradition that “officially pardons” two turkeys, on a holiday where over 45 million turkeys will be eaten. The tradition is seen as comical, but it is simultaneously ridiculing.