The annual ceremony of the presidential turkey pardon, in which the U.S. president symbolically saves at least one turkey from being killed for a holiday feast, has become a Thanksgiving tradition—but it’s unclear just how the tradition got started.
According to the White House, president Lincoln supposedly gave mercy to a Christmas turkey after his son Tad begged him not to kill it.
Some people give President Truman credit as the first to participate in the modern version of the ritual, but according to the Presidential Libraries his turkeys had a different destiny: “Truman sometimes indicated to reporters that the turkeys he received were destined for the family dinner table.” Most historians agree that, in fact, in 1963 President Kennedy was the first to unofficially pardon a Thanksgiving turkey, with the words, "We'll just let this one grow."
But it was President Reagan who first used the term "pardon," in 1987, in the middle of an exchange during which he was questioned about pardoning people involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. Deflecting questions about the scandal while describing how he'd been assured the turkey would go to a farm rather than a holiday table, he told Sam Donaldson of ABC News, "If they'd given me a different answer on Charlie [the turkey] and his future, I would have pardoned him."
George H.W. Bush formally pardoned the thanksgiving turkey two years later when he told reporters, “Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy. He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.”
Since then, the tradition has stuck. As President Obama said in 2015: “Time flies even if turkeys don’t.”