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Explained: The history of Thanksgiving, and the presidential turkey pardon

Thanksgiving Day 2020: The Thanksgiving harvest festival, chiefly observed in North America, falls on the second Monday of October in Canada and on the fourth Thursday of November in the US every year (November 26 in 2020).

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: November 27, 2020 1:03:32 pm
Thanksgiving, US presidential turkey pardon, History of thanksgiving, What is thanksgiving, thanksgiving history, indian expressUS President Donald Trump has insisted that he has the “absolute right” to pardon even himself. (Reuters Photo: Hannah McKay)

US President Donald Trump on November 24 pardoned the 2020 National Thanksgiving Turkey, continuing a light-hearted tradition that is decades old, in which the commander-in-chief grants “clemency” to a turkey, on or just before the country celebrates Thanksgiving Day.

The Thanksgiving harvest festival, chiefly observed in North America, falls on the second Monday of October in Canada and on the fourth Thursday of November in the US every year (November 26 in 2020).

American households celebrate the festival by cooking a large meal to be shared with friends and family, which includes roast turkey — a ubiquitous Thanksgiving dish that has over the years become synonymous with the festival itself.

The history of Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving is known to have spiritual roots, but is largely celebrated as a secular festival today. Some trace its origins to the English Reformation in the 16th century, a period that began during the rule of Henry VIII, when days of thanksgiving gained prominence over Catholic holidays. Before 1536, there were 95 church holidays, plus 52 Sundays, when people were required to attend church, forego work and sometimes pay for expensive celebrations. Reforms brought down church holidays to 27, and were to be replaced by Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving.

The more popular version, however, places the festival’s beginning in the year 1620, when a batch of English colonists, called the Pilgrims, reached American soil and settled in an area they named Plymouth, near the present-day Northeastern US city of Boston. Their first winter there was brutal, and many died of disease and starvation. In the spring of 1621, the Pilgrims began to plant and grow crops, and were assisted by a native American named Squanto, who also helped them secure an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe. Thanks to their newfound skills and planting techniques, the Pilgrims were able to prepare themselves for the next winter, and in November that year invited the Wampanoag chief to join them for a celebratory feast — which is today considered the “first Thanksgiving”.

Then, over the centuries, Thanksgiving became a part of American tradition, and was declared a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

Thanksgiving, US presidential turkey pardon, History of thanksgiving, What is thanksgiving, thanksgiving history, indian express Trump and Melania with Corn, in the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo: Susan Walsh)

The presidential turkey pardon

Starting in the 1870s, American presidents started receiving turkeys as gifts from different parts of the country, many of which arrived in elaborate crates and costumes, according to the White House website.

In the 1940s, farmers began sending the birds to the White House as a lobbying effort for the poultry industry. It soon became a tradition, although sporadic, for the president to “pardon” a live turkey that had been marked for the family’s Thanksgiving dinner.

The “pardoning” ritual became an annual event starting in 1989 during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, and has continued unabated ever since.

Every year, a “Presidential Flock” of 50 turkeys is raised in the same way as those meant for consumers, being fed on a grain-heavy diet. But, at the same time, the birds are prepared for potential stardom, being trained to endure the sounds of a crowd, bright camera lights, and having to stand comfortably on a table during the presentation ceremony.

Of the 50 turkeys, two are finally selected, and are typically named by children of the US state where they have been raised. This year, the finalists were named “Corn” and “Cob”, following the pairs “Butter” and “Bread”, “Peas” and “Carrots”, and “Drumstick” and “Wishbone” in previous years.

The winning pair is then brought to the capital, Washington, D.C., where it is put up at the luxury Willard Hotel, near the White House grounds.

The actual event at the White House, where the two birds are “pardoned”, is highly anticipated for its comic value, as every US President typically conducts the ceremony with pun-laced humour.

In 2018, Trump joked about a turkey refusing to concede an election, saying, “Carrots refused to concede and demanded a recount, and we’re still fighting with Carrots.” This year, though, a video of that pardon has turned viral as social media users have commented on how just two years later it is Trump who is refusing to concede the presidential election to Joe Biden.

After the birds are saved from slaughter, they are sent to a facility where they spend their remaining years alive. This year, Corn and Cob are “retiring” to their new home on the campus of Iowa State University.

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