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It has been a source of comfort for many Americans at Thanksgiving that although they will sit down and feast on turkey that day, their President will at least pardon a lucky bird at the White House. The common perception is that this cute and light-hearted custom is a ‘centuries-old Thanksgiving tradition’.

The tradition originated in 1947, when the National Turkey Federation presented its first turkey to Harry Truman. However, this presentation wasn’t in anticipation of a pardon, instead the bird was destined for the President’s dinner table. A poultry pardoning tradition was unlikely to have started with the only President still to have used nuclear weapons. The surprising truth is that this tradition is only as old as the singer-songwriter Taylor Swift.

George Bush Senior was the first President to officially pardon a turkey with the words: ‘He will not end up on anyone's dinner table, not this guy – he's granted a Presidential pardon as of right now – and allow him to live out his days on a children's farm not far from here.’ And so the actual tradition took hold.

So including this year’s turkey that is 25 birds saved from the table, provided Barack Obama doesn’t have a moment of PR madness and demand the bird be taken around the back of the White House and put to the knife. Meaning only 11% of the possible turkeys since George Washington’s Presidency have been saved.

The statistic only gets slightly better when you include the unofficially pardoned turkeys. Abraham Lincoln let a Christmas turkey live after his son Tad pleaded for his life (Lincoln only introduced Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863.) In 1963 when John F Kennedy was presented with a turkey wearing a sign that read: ‘Good Eatin' Mr. President’, Kennedy said, ‘Let's just keep him.’ Then in 1987, Ronald Reagan deflected questions about pardoning Oliver North in the Iran-Contra case by joking about pardoning that years Thanksgiving turkey.

So although the custom will no doubt continue in the future, this good news story has a long way to go before the statistics catch up with the merciful misconception of the commonly held belief.

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