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The History of Presidential Turkey Pardoning

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Each year before Thanksgiving, the President of the United States formally pardons a live turkey presented to him by the National Turkey Federation. It’s a tradition that’s seemingly been around forever, and while the NTF has been supplying the White House with holiday birds since the 1940s, the pardoning bit is actually a pretty new development.

A lot of people point to Harry Truman as pardoning the first turkey in 1947, but the record keepers at the Truman Library can’t find any “documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records” tying Truman to the custom. What’s more, the first turkey Truman supposedly pardoned wasn't even for Thanksgiving — it was given to him at Christmas. The Truman family ate it.

Another origin story says that Abraham Lincoln interrupted a Cabinet meeting in 1863 to grant a turkey named Jack, which his son had befriended, an order of reprieve for “execution” in the kitchen. As with Truman, though, there’s no documentation supporting the story, and it may be just another Lincoln tall tale.

The first president after Truman to spare a turkey was John F. Kennedy. But JFK did not grant a formal “pardon” to the bird presented to him the week before Thanksgiving in 1963. He simply suggested the family “just keep him” and announced he would not eat the bird. ("It's our Thanksgiving present to him," Kennedy said.) According to a contemporary New York Times report, the bird was returned to a farm for breeding. Kennedy tragically didn't live to see Thanksgiving — he was assassinated on November 22.

Ronald Reagan spared a turkey named Charlie from the White House kitchen, but only joked about giving it a pardon as he tried to deflect questions about the Iran-Contra affair. Formalized turkey pardoning, it turns out, has only been around since 1989, when President George H.W. Bush looked at his turkey and said, “Let me assure this fine tom he will not end up on anyone's dinner table. Not this guy. He's been granted a presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here.”

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Since 1989, the tradition has been cemented and the president has pardoned a turkey (and its alternate) each year.

Until 2004, the spared turkeys were sent to Kidwell Farm, a petting zoo at Frying Pan Park in Virginia, where they lived out the rest of their lives in the Turkey Barn. From 2005 to 2009, the turkeys went to either Disneyland in California or Disney World in Florida, where they served as honorary grand marshals in Disney's Thanksgiving Day Parade and then retired to Disneyland’s Big Thunder Ranch.

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In 2010, Disney stopped taking pardoned turkeys and President Obama’s birds were sent to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia — which is where this year's turkeys will spend the holidays, too. The pardoning ceremony is scheduled for Wednesday in the Rose Garden, and the White House social media team really went overboard this year:

The turkey with the less-popular Twitter hashtag will be killed and eaten, right? No, according to the White House, "both turkeys travel to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens where they will be on display for visitors during 'Christmas at Mount Vernon.' The turkeys will then travel to their permanent home at Morven Park's Turkey Hill, the historic turkey farm located at the home of former Virginia Governor Westmorland Davis in Leesburg, Virginia."

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The Origins of 10 Thanksgiving Traditions
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There's a lot more to Thanksgiving than just the turkey and the Pilgrims. And though most celebrations will break out the cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, there are a number of other customs that you might be less aware of (and some that are becoming too ubiquitous to miss).

1. THE TURKEY TROT FOOTRACE

Many towns host brisk morning runs to lessen the guilt about the impending feast (distances and times vary from race to race, but the feel-good endorphins are universal). The oldest known Turkey Trot footrace took place in Buffalo, New York, and has been happening every year since 1896. Nearly 13,000 runners participated in the 4.97 mile race last year.

2. THE GREAT GOBBLER GALLOP IN CUERO, TEXAS

During their annual TurkeyFest in November, they gather a bunch of turkeys and have the "Great Gobbler Gallop," a turkey race. It started in 1908 when a turkey dressing house opened in town. Early in November, farmers would herd their turkeys down the road toward the dressing house so the birds could be prepared for Thanksgiving. As you can imagine, this was quite a spectacle—as many as 20,000 turkeys have been part of this "march". People gathered to watch, and eventually the first official festival was formed around the event in 1912. The final event of the celebration is the Great Gobbler Gallop, a race between the Cuero turkey champ and the champ from Worthington, Minnesota (they have a TurkeyFest as well). Each town holds a heat and the best time between the towns wins. The prize is a four-foot trophy called "The Traveling Turkey Trophy of Tumultuous Triumph."

3. FRANKSGIVING

From 1939 to 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up by a week. In '39, Thanksgiving, traditionally held on the last Thursday of November, fell on the 30th. Since enough people would wait until after Thanksgiving to start their Christmas shopping, Roosevelt was concerned that having the holiday so late in the month would mess up retail sales at a time when he was trying hard to pull Americans out of the Great Depression. It didn't entirely go over well though—some states observed FDR's change, and others celebrated what was being called the "Republican" Thanksgiving on the traditional, last-Thursday date. Colorado, Mississippi, and Texas all considered both Thanksgivings to be holidays. Today, we've basically split the difference—Thanksgiving is held on the fourth Thursday of November, regardless of whether that's the last Thursday of the month or not.

4. THE PRESIDENTIAL TURKEY PARDON

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The story goes that since at least Harry Truman, it has been tradition for the President of the U.S. to save a couple of birds from becoming someone's feast. Records only go back to George H.W. Bush doing it, though some say the tradition goes all the way back to Abraham Lincoln pardoning his son's pet turkey. (Lincoln is also the President who originally declared that the holiday be held on the last Thursday of November.) In recent years, the public has gotten to name the turkeys in online polls; the paired turkeys (the one you see in pictures and a backup) have gotten creative names such as Stars and Stripes, Biscuit and Gravy, Marshmallow and Yam, Flyer and Fryer, Apple and Cider, and Honest and Abe last year.

5. THANKSGIVING PARADES

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Everyone knows about the Macy's Parade, but for a more historically accurate parade, check out America's Hometown Thanksgiving Parade in Plymouth. The parade starts with a military flyover and continues with floats and costumed people taking the parade-goers from the 17th century to the present time. There are nationally recognized Drum and Bugle Corps, re-enactment units from every period of American history, and military marching units. And military bands play music honoring the men and women who serve in each branch: the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard.

6. BLACK FRIDAY

Black Friday, of course, is the day-after sales extravaganza that major (and minor) retailers participate in. Most people think that the term comes from the day of the year when retail stores make their profits go from red to black, but other sources have it originating from police officers in Philadelphia. They referred to the day as Black Friday because of the heavy traffic and higher propensity for accidents. Also, just because you hear that it's "the busiest shopping day of the season" on the news, don't believe it. It's one of the busiest days, but typically, it's hardly ever the busiest, though it typically ranks somewhere in the top 10. The busiest shopping day of the year is usually the Saturday before Christmas.

7. CYBER MONDAY

Black Friday is quickly being rivaled in popularity by Cyber Monday. It's a fairly recent phenomenon—it didn't even have a name until 2005. But there's truth to it—77 percent of online retailers at the time reported an increase in sales on that particular day, and as online shopping has continued to grow and become more convenient, retailers have scheduled their promotions to follow suit.

8. BUY NOTHING DAY

And in retaliation for Black Friday, there's Buy Nothing Day. To protest consumerism, many people informally celebrate BND. It was first "celebrated" in 1992, but didn't settle on its day-after-Thanksgiving date until 1997, where it has been ever since. It's also observed internationally, but outside of North America the day of observance is the Saturday after our Thanksgiving.

9. FOOTBALL

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It's a common sight across the U.S.: parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles passed out on the couch watching football after dinner. Well, we have the first Detroit Lions owner, G.A. Richards, to thank for the tradition of Thanksgiving football. He saw it as a way to get people to his games. CBS was the first on the bandwagon when they televised their first Thanksgiving game in 1956. The first color broadcast was in 1965—the Lions vs. the Baltimore Colts. Since the 1960s, the Dallas Cowboys have joined the Lions in hosting Thanksgiving Day games, and the NFL Network now airs a third game on that night.

10. NATIONAL DOG SHOW

Of course, if football isn't your thing, there's always the National Dog Show. It's aired after the Macy's Parade on NBC every year. Good luck telling your dad that he'll be enjoying Springer Spaniels instead of the Lions or Cowboys, though.

A version of this story originally published in 2008.

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Why Do We Wish on the Turkey’s Wishbone?
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Although Thanksgiving is a North American holiday and a recent invention in the grand scheme of things, the tradition of breaking the wishbone comes from Europe, and is thousands of years older.

A bird’s wishbone is technically known as the furcula. It’s formed by the fusion of two clavicles, and is important to flight because of its elasticity and the tendons that attach to it. Clavicles, fused or not, aren’t unique to birds. You and I have unfused clavicles, also known as collarbones, and wishbones have been found in most branches of the dinosaur family tree.

The custom of snapping these bones in two after dinner came to us from the English, who got it from the Romans, who got it from the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization. As far as historians and archaeologists can tell, the Etruscans were really into their chickens, and believed that the birds were oracles and could predict the future. They exploited the chickens' supposed gifts by turning them into walking ouija boards with a bizarre ritual known as alectryomancy or “rooster divination.” They would draw a circle on the ground and divide it into wedges representing the letters of the Etruscan alphabet (which played a role in the formation of our own). Bits of food were scattered on each wedge and a chicken was placed in the center of the circle. As the bird snacked, scribes would note the sequence of letters that it pecked at, and the local priests would use the resulting messages to divine the future and answer the city’s most pressing questions.

When a chicken was killed, the furcula was laid out in the sun to dry so that it could be preserved and so that people would still have access to the oracle's power even after eating it. (Why the wishbone, specifically—and not, say, the femur or the ulna—is a detail that seems to be lost to history.) People would pick up the bone, stroke it, and make wishes on it, hence its modern name.

As the Romans crossed paths with the Etruscans, they adopted some of their customs, including alectryomancy and making wishes on the furcula. According to legend, the Romans went from merely petting the bones to breaking them because of supply and demand. There weren't enough bones to go around for everyone to wish on, so two people would wish on the same bone and then break it to see who got the bigger piece and their wish. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me—Were there really that few chickens being slaughtered in Rome? If a resource is already scarce, why would you break what supply you do have into pieces?—but I can’t find much more than this about the bone-breaking aspect of the tradition.

Anyway, as the Romans traipsed around Europe, they left their cultural mark in many different places, including the British Isles. People living in England at the time adopted the wishbone custom, and it eventually came to the New World with English settlers, who began using the turkey’s wishbone as well as the chicken’s.

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