This is not about Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon. Each Thanksgiving Day a very strange thing happens in Washington, D.C. Amongst a gathering of children, reporters, and top federal government officials, the President of the United States of America pardons someone - or rather something. He doesn't let the guilty go free. He doesn't spare the innocent. This presidential pardon goes to a bird -- a turkey specifically bred from the moment of hatching and raised for this honor. Instead of going to the White House kitchen to be later gobbled up in the State Dining Room, this bird is sent to live out his days in the Garden of Eden. Well, actually the birds are sent to petting zoos, parks, and other places they might be cared for. But that's the end of the story; let's start from the beginning.

I can't pardon a turkey. If you think I can pardon a turkey, then you have got to go back to your school and insist that you be better prepared to go out in the world.

You can't pardon a turkey?

No. I tell you what I can do. I'm drafting this turkey into military service.

History and American Folklore

In 1863, during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, a live turkey was sent to the White House to later be prepared for the holiday dinner. Tad Lincoln, son of the president and 10 years old at the time, took a liking to the turkey he had named Jack. When the time came to prepare Jack for the meal, Tad was said to have burst in on a cabinet meeting asking for his pet to be spared. Pulling out a piece of paper, the president wrote a short note to the "executioner" telling him to let the animal go.

Of course, no one knows if this really ever happened. What we do know is that since 1947, Harry S. Truman resurrected the tradition, and every president since this time has pardoned a turkey on Thanksgiving. It should be known that the president has no jurisdiction over turkeys -- this is all just in good fun. Here is how the process works:

April

In the home state of the current chairman of the National Turkey Federation (I am not making this up), the life of this turkey begins. In this month, about 2500 turkey toms are hatched. All of these turkeys are destined to become gourmet Thanksgiving dinners - all except the chosen one (and his trusty sidekick). They are raised in an air-conditioned barn full of clean sawdust. They eat. They sleep. They poop. They gobble. Did I mention they have air conditioning? This continues until August.

August

Once they reach about 25 pounds (11 kilograms), six to ten of the finest from the original group are pulled aside as presidential candidates. Selected for their fine plumage, regal attitude, and portly figure, they are moved to a separate building to be further pampered.

August to November

Up to the day before the executive event, the turkeys are familiarized to humans so that they will be properly behaved during the ceremony. This familiarization is achieved by animal care workers walking around in long-sleeved, dark blue coveralls to mimic the dark blue suits worn by the personnel who will be around on Thanksgiving. They then make lots of noise by clapping and talking. All this time, the turkeys are hand fed and frequently petted. As the final day draws near and the birds all weigh as much as 50 lbs, the winner and the first runner up are chosen. Bye bye, losers!

Aren't I going to get a reputation for being soft on turkeys?

On the day before Thanksgiving, the turkeys are brought to Washington. They are put up for the night in the top floor of the Hotel Washington overlooking the presidential mansion. The next morning, they are taken to the White House lawn where the ceremony takes place. There are some words read, some jokes told, and then the president declares, "By virtue of an unconditional presidential pardon...", and with that, the turkey is spared. While the president used to pick up the bird, because of a fiasco during the Reagan administration, the turkey now just gets a pat on the head.

And they lived happily ever after

For about a decade, the pardoned turkeys and their sidekicks, were sent to the ironically named Frying Pan Park - a petting zoo in Virginia. Here they live out the rest of their lives, and upon death are buried in a local farmer's field. In 2005, however; the lucky turkeys were sent to California's Disneyland to participate in the park's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

FAQ

Q. You mean they live in a special house, are hand fed by people who appear to be wearing suits, get to stay in a hotel I could never afford, and get to meet the president?
A. Yup. And air conditioning.

Q. What happened with Reagan?
A. Apparently the bird started freaking out - feathers were everywhere. The following year, the chosen animal looked to be sedated. This brought an outcry from animal rights activists. Accusations were made, but everything was denied. So now to avoid these problems, the turkey just gets a pat on the head or something similar.

Q. Can I go visit the flock of famous turkeys in Virginia?
A. No. Unfortunately, the way these turkeys are bred, while causing them to become delicious meals, brings them numerous muscular and cardiac troubles. They typically don't live more than a year. But look at the bright side, that's one more year than all the others get. It is said that no president has gone to visit either.

Q. What are those quotes from?
A. They are from an episode of The West Wing titled Shibboleth. One of the subplots happened to be the insanity involved in this outlandish tradition.

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