Turkey pardon 2021: What is the Thanksgiving tradition, what does US president do, and when does it happen?

While US cultural staples like American football and Black Friday have made it to the UK, the turkey pardon ceremony is yet to cross the Atlantic - but what is the event about?

Many staples of US culture have travelled across the Atlantic to the UK in recent years.

American football, the Black Friday sales period and baby showers are among a slew of things that have begun to find mainstream success on this side of the pond.

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But one tradition from the US Thanksgiving holiday period that hasn’t made it over here is the presidential turkey pardon.

So how did the ceremony become a fixture of the US holiday season?

Here’s what you need to know.

Presidents from George Bush Snr to Donald Trump have pardoned turkeys ahead of Thanksgiving (image: Shutterstock)

When did Joe Biden pardon a turkey?

The Thanksgiving 2021 turkey pardoning ceremony usually takes place on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving day, which always happens on a Thursday.

But Joe Biden pardoned his turkeys - Peanut Butter and Jelly - on Friday 19 November.

It proved to be a busy day for the 46th US President, who had already seen his potentially legacy-defining climate and social policy spending package passed by the House of Representatives, and given his reaction to the verdict of the divisive Kyle Rittenhouse case.

At the turkey pardoning Biden could focus on the more light-hearted topic of his favourite lunchtime food, which turned out to be peanut butter and jelly - not the birds in this case, but the popular American snack.

“I have to admit to you – my wife doesn’t like me to admit it – that’s what I like for lunch: peanut butter and jelly,” Biden told the assembled reporters.

The event is associated with Thanksgiving because turkey is a key component of the traditional dinner served during the US national holiday.

Why will the pardoning take place?

The presidential event is seen as the official beginning of the Thanksgiving holiday period.

It marks a moment of thanks for the US food harvest - a tradition akin to the Harvest Festival in the UK, when people take produce from their allotment or farm to churches and schools.

Two turkeys are chosen for the pardoning ceremony from a ‘Presidential Flock’ reared by that year’s designated farmer (image: AFP/Getty Images)

The pardoning element is a more recent tradition.

President John F. Kennedy, when presented with a big bird that had a sign hanging around its neck that read: ‘Good eating, Mr. President’, got cold feet and said: "We’ll just let this one grow."

Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan all sent their birds to petting zoos, but did not officially pardon them.

According to the US National Turkey Federation, George Bush Senior made the gesture official in 1989, when animal rights activists were picketing outside the White House.

But there is evidence that Abraham Lincoln gave clemency to a turkey in 1863.

Origins of the ceremony

No one quite knows when the first turkey was presented to the president of the USA.

But these gifts were not turned into events in their own right until 1925, when the wife of President Calvin Coolidge - First Lady Grace Coolidge - accepted a turkey from a girl scout from the northeastern US state of Vermont.

The turkey pardon has become a high-profile event during the US Thanksgiving holiday season (image: Getty Images)

Further attention was given to the presentation from 1947, when the US National Turkey Federation (NTF) started its official association with the ceremony.

President Harry Truman bought the trade body in after having faced criticism from chicken and turkey farmers for allegedly seeking to encourage ‘poultryless Thursdays’.

Ever since, the NTF has provided the president with the turkey.

What happens during the pardoning?

Two turkeys are chosen for the pardoning ceremony from a ‘Presidential Flock’ reared by that year’s designated farmer.

One will be pardoned, while its alternate will be there just in case anything happens to the chosen bird.

These turkeys begin preparations for the White House event from an early age.

Farmers will get them used to crowd noise, bright camera lights and standing comfortably on a table.

The turkeys that are selected for pardoning usually spend a night or two in a luxury hotel in Washington D.C. (image: Getty Images)

The NTF says physical appearance and temperament are factors which contribute to the selection of the two birds.

The turkeys are given names by the White House.

2020’s pair were named ‘Corn and Cob’ but previous pairings have included, ‘Liberty and Peace’ and ‘Flyer and Fryer’.

A few days before the ceremony, the two turkeys travel to the US capital Washington, D.C. and are usually put up in a fancy hotel.

Corn and Cob stayed in the Willard InterContinental, which is adjacent to the White House grounds.

With the turkey on a table in front of them, the President will typically seek to remind people of how thankful they should be to live in the USA and for the institutions and people that work to maintain the nation.

While the event is usually lighthearted, Presidents have presented the challenges facing the nation as well.

For example, Barack Obama reflected on the gravity of the financial crisis, while George Bush Junior’s 2001 Thanksgiving came just months after 9/11.

After the event, both turkeys are normally sent to petting zoos.

This year, celebrities including, Billie Eilish, Joaquin Phoenix and Ricky Gervais, wrote to President Biden to ask that the turkeys be sent to a farm sanctuary instead.

They said this would allow the turkeys to be “cared for as individuals with unique personalities, emotions, needs, and preferences”.

However, Peanut Butter and Jelly were sent to the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana to live out their remaining days.

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