“There are certain days when I remember why I ran for this office,” said President Barack Obama at his first turkey pardon, in 2009. “And then there are moments like this.”
Ceremonially giving a turkey a pass the day before Thanksgiving is one of the more peculiar duties of our country’s highest office. And yet despite his bewilderment, the president continued the tradition Wednesday afternoon in the White House’s Cross Hall (bad weather moved the ceremony from the Rose Garden), sparing two birds from the dinner table.
“I am here to announce what I m sure will be the most talked-about executive action this month,” Obama said to laughter, referencing his immigration plan. “Today, I m taking an action fully within my legal authority – the same kind of action taken by Democrats and Republican presidents before me – to spare the lives of two turkeys, Mac and Cheese, from a terrible and delicious fate.”
But one has to wonder: Why?
The origins of the turkey pardon are mysterious. Some say Abraham Lincoln was the first to kick off the practice: In 1863, he spared a Christmas turkey, which his son Tad had named Jack and turned into a pet, according to The New York Times.
Presidents have long received Thanksgiving turkeys as gifts, though these were intended for the First Family’s table. In 1963, President Kennedy returned a Thanksgiving turkey to the farm where it was raised, reportedly saying, “We’ll just let this one grow.”
And starting around the Nixon administration, presidents began sending their birds to a nearby petting zoo after a receiving ceremony.
But the first official pardon didn’t come until 1989, when George H.W. Bush announced that year’s turkey “had been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.” And a tradition was born.
The turkeys Obama pardoned, Cheese and his alternate, Mac, are both antibiotic-free, 20-week old, approximately 48-pound turkeys, according to the White House.
After the pardoning, the turkeys will live out their days at “Turkey Hill,” a historic farm located at the home of former Virginia Governor Westmoreland Davis in Leesburg, Virginia.
In addition, Jaindl’s Turkey Farm in Orefield, Pennsylvania, presented the first family with two “dressed” turkeys that will be donated to a local area food bank.
That all makes sense. But don’t try to explain turkey pardoning to anyone who didn’t grow up in the States. Why would you pardon a turkey? wondered Brit John Oliver this week, when he charged that, “Every single turkey is guilty of having delicious bird parts.”