Turkeys at the White House: A History of Presidential Thanksgivings

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Although Americans have celebrated versions of Thanksgiving since the early 17th century, it wasn’t until 1789 that President George Washington issued a proclamation declaring Thursday, Nov. 26, a national day of Thanksgiving. It took even longer for it to become a federal holiday — President Abraham Lincoln did that in 1863 — but ever since, the holiday, which always falls on the last Thursday of November, has played a special role in American lives.

Especially fascinating is the evolution of White House Thanksgiving traditions, which now include the pardoning of a turkey — an act that, according to an 1865 dispatch by White House reporter Noah Brooks, can be traced back to Abraham Lincoln. 

“About a year before, a live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln’s son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life,” Brooks wrote. “[Tad’s] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared.”

While that was the first time a turkey’s life was spared, the tradition wasn’t actually cemented until pretty recently. Scroll through the above slideshow for a closer look at White House Thanksgivings past and a history of turkey pardons.