Turkey Pardon: what is the annual White House Thanksgiving tradition - and will Donald Trump perform it in 2020?

Following his election defeat, the President has only appeared four times for formal engagements

President Donald Trump pardons a turkey in 2019.
President Donald Trump pardons a turkey in 2019.

The pardoning of a turkey is a well documented tradition in the presidential calendar.

Taking place on or shortly before Thanksgiving Thursday, it is an opportunity for some light-hearted fun as Americans gear up for the holiday season.

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So what is the turkey pardon, and will it happen in 2020? Here is what you need to know.

When did the turkey pardon tradition begin?

The origins of the tradition are thought to extend back to the early 1900s, with presidents having long received turkey gifts from farmers at Thanksgiving on the grounds of the White House - usually in the Rose Garden.

However, until President H.W. Bush’s era, turkeys were usually destined for the dinner table.

On November 14, 1989, Bush senior told the photographers at the usual turkey receiving ceremony that this year’s bird had “been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.”

The event has taken place annually since Bush senior’s son, President George W. Bush took office in 2001.

What is the turkey pardon?

The turkey pardon ceremony happens around the time of Thanksgiving and involves the president sparing the life of a turkey, which is presented by the National Turkey Federation (NFT).

The NTF nominates two turkeys for the ceremony and only one is chosen to be officially pardoned by the president - however the other turkey is often also spared.

The pardoned bird(s) is then taken to an animal sanctuary to enjoy the rest of its life without the threat of being served up for Thanksgiving dinner.

Usually the birds chosen are domesticated broad-breasted turkeys, which are bred and raised in the same way as the 46 million turkeys slaughtered each year for the American holiday.

Why is the turkey pardon important?

Well, it isn’t really.

As acknowledged by President Barack Obama during his 2013 pardoning ceremony, it isn’t the most official and important duty.

He joked that of the“many awesome and solemn responsibilities” that come with having arguably the “most powerful position in the world,” pardoning a turkey is “not one of them.”

The event is a photograph opportunity and one which allows presidents to offer well wishes to their country.

Presidents tend to put their own spin on the event.

President Trump named his two turkeys ‘peas’ and ‘carrots’ in 2018, before asking White House staff which one should be saved via a staff poll. Peas was the chosen favourite to be pardoned, though both were spared the oven on Thanksgiving.

In 2019, Trump pardoned both finalists. ‘Bread’ and ‘Butter’ enjoyed some conversation with the president, he referred to them as "beauties" and when one gobbled, interrupting him, he responded: "Wow. That's a strong bird."

Bush named one of his turkeys ‘Liberty’, while Obama followed in 2008 with ‘Courage’ whom he blessed.

Before it was tradition, President Nixon shook the hand of his gifted Turkey in 1955 - then ate the bird for his dinner.

Will the turkey pardon happen this year?

President Trump has just lost the 2020 American election and has only made four formal engagements since his defeat on 3 November.

Despite this, he has announced that he will pardon the chosen turkey on Tuesday, 24 November.

There were doubts raised about his willingness to proceed with public engagements as he has rarely left the White House since his election defeat, other than to commemorate the fallen on Remembrance sunday.

The selected birds who have been chosen as the finalists are broad-breasts raised by the National Turkey Foundation's chairman and Iowa turkey farmer Ron Kardel.

Trump will pick his chosen favourite to pardon and following the ceremony, the turkeys (both of which will be spared) will reside at ‘Gobblers Rest’ sanctuary in Blacksburg, Virginia.