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November 2008
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The President’s Pardon for the Thanksgiving Turkey

The President of the United States has the power to pardon people found guilty of crimes – to forgive the crimes, and free them from punishment. But once a year, the President issues a different kind of pardon. It goes to a U.S. resident who has committed no crimes but was meant to die – a turkey.

Every year, before Thanksgiving, one or two live turkeys are given to the White House. (In recent years, there have always been two.) At a ceremony in the Rose Garden, the President announces that these turkeys will never be killed and eaten. Then they’re sent to a farm or a park, or somewhere else they can live out their lives.

This has become an American tradition, though not a very serious one. It’s not about the ethics of eating meat. It’s done mostly to help people take their minds off their problems and relax for Thanksgiving.

The turkeys are chosen from a commercial farm. They’re usually given to the President as a gift from groups that help poultry farmers.

No one seems to know how this tradition started. Some say Abraham Lincoln’s son raised a turkey, then didn’t want to kill it – so his father pardoned it. Some say President Harry S Truman was the first to pardon a turkey – but the Truman Library, where his papers are stored, says there’s no record of this. Dwight D. Eisenhower was given live turkeys when he was President, and for the first few years, they were used for his Thanksgiving dinner. But starting in 1957, the kitchen staff used frozen turkeys instead. (Maybe they just got tired of preparing live turkeys.) Still, a live turkey was taken to the White House each November, and the President, or his stand-in, posed for a picture with it.

President John F. Kennedy was given a live turkey in November 1963, shortly before he was killed. He said, “Let’s just keep him.”

Now that the pardon is an annual event, the White House asks Americans to get involved. Each year, people can help choose the names of the two turkeys in an online poll. Some of the names have been: Liberty, Freedom, Biscuits, Gravy, Flyer, and Fryer.

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