Thanksgiving: An American Tradition

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich and Speaker Newt Gingrich

Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks for our many blessings and reflect upon this cherished American tradition.

The Thanksgiving feast has a long history and the inclusion of turkey goes back to the beginning.

Colonist Edward Winslow recorded that the the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621. It included venison, goose, duck, corn, nuts, and shellfish. William Bradford added that, “besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.”

Sarah Josepha Hale’s popular first novel, “Northwood: A Tale of New England,” described a Thanksgiving feast around 1827 with a large family table topped with roasted turkey, gravy, and vegetables. For many years, Hale lobbied president after president to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Finally, on Oct. 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a day of Thanksgiving and the holiday was established.

The Thanksgiving turkey became so integral that the famous artist Norman Rockwell featured a turkey as part of the Thanksgiving spread in his 1943 painting, “Freedom from Want.” This was one of the four iconic paintings carried by the Saturday Evening Post designed to illustrate President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 declaration of the four freedoms.

Presidential pardoning of the Turkey at Thanksgiving began at the first national holiday in 1863. President Lincoln’s son Tad Lincoln begged for the Thanksgiving turkey’s life, and the bird was spared. Tad Lincoln liked the turkey so much he called it Jack and led it around on a leash.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was presented with a turkey from the National Turkey Federation in 1954. During the event, President Eisenhower placed a cranberry in his palm and fed it to the large bird. He then pardoned the turkey.

President John F. Kennedy publicly spared a turkey that was presented to him by both the National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board on Nov. 19, 1963 (three days before his tragic assassination). President Kennedy pardoned the turkey by saying, “Let’s keep him going.”

More than 20 years later, President Ronald Reagan was presented a live turkey named R.J. (short for “robust and juicy”) by the National Turkey Federation. R.J. was pardoned and sent to a petting farm in Virginia. According to a Nov. 17, 1984 Associated Press article:

“An unceremonious turkey, being presented to the White House for Thanksgiving, flapped its wings in the face of the president of the United States on Friday, leaving the chief executive holding a single white feather. President Reagan was at his ceremonial best for the 37th annual presentation of a Thanksgiving turkey, but the 53 pound bird would have none of it. The turkey, the pick of a pampered flock of 10, leaped off a table in the White House Rose Garden with a flurry of wings and strutted away from the president toward a dozen television cameras. ‘At least one person thinks we’ve been here long enough,’ said Reagan, holding aloft one of the turkey’s pure white features as the bird made its abrupt departure, its rose red wattles shaking from side to side.”

Despite the bird’s bad behavior, White House aides said R.J. was “one of the safest turkeys in America.”

In 1987, Reagan officially pardoned his turkey and sent it to a petting zoo.

President George H. W. Bush started the modern tradition of presidents pardoning turkeys every year. In 1989, President Bush said, “But 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 presented a Presidential pardon as of right now—and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”

Virtually every president since has used the occasion to bring levity to the national holiday.

President Bill Clinton in 1995 said during the pardoning ceremony, “I hereby pardon this turkey. There are so many turkeys in Washington, I should pardon at least one a year, I think.”

President George W. Bush in 2003 instituted the voting on the turkey’s names via the White House website. The birds were named Stars and Stripes. In 2006, the two birds were named Flyer and Fryer.

President Barack Obama in 2009 pardoned a turkey named Courage, which was then sent to Disneyland for its annual holiday parade. Obama quipped, “You know there are certain days that remind me of why I ran for this office… and then there are moments like this, where I pardon a turkey and send it to Disneyland.”

For an extra bit of fun, President Donald Trump in 2017 ran a poll on what was then Twitter to see which of the two White House turkeys would be pardoned during the ceremony. Drumstick won by 60 percent of the vote, and Wishbone earned just 40 percent. Drumstick was officially presented at the White House ceremony. In the end, both turkey’s lives were spared.

Among the many traditions associated with Thanksgiving, the most important is expressing gratitude for our nation’s exceptional past and hope for our prosperous future.

We wish you a happy Thanksgiving!