White House Thanksgiving Traditions Through the Years

Even presidents need to celebrate Turkey Day

The presidential turkey pardon dates back to Abraham Lincoln's son, Tad.

Thanksgiving is one day each year when we sit down, loosen our belts, and forget about everything else in the world (except maybe football). And while presidents don’t exactly have the luxury of completely unplugging, the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving goes all the way back to none other than George Washington, who proclaimed Nov. 26 a day of public thanksgiving in 1789. Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday during his presidency, and began the tradition of eating a Thanksgiving dinner in the White House. We assembled a timeline of celebrating Thanksgiving in the White House, from Lincoln to Obama.  

Click here to see the White House Thanksgiving Traditions Through the Years (Slideshow)

The tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving in the White House dates back to 1863, when President Lincoln signed an official proclamation establishing the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise. The delicious initiative began after New Hampshire author Sarah Josepha Hale petitioned Congress to  make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Since the days of Lincoln, each president has put their own stamp on the Thanksgiving feast, either celebrating at the White House itself or at other presidential mainstays like Camp David. In the case of John F. Kennedy, the tradition of his family was to celebrate Thanksgiving in Hyannis Port, Mass.

Another Thanksgiving tradition closely tied to the White House is the pardoning of White House turkeys. According to The White House Historical Association, it can loosely be traced back to Lincoln, whose son Tad was recorded as interceding on the behalf of a turkey. But in 1989, President George H.W. Bush officially pardoned a turkey, establishing the tradition we know today.

While some presidents were interested in a Thanksgiving meal that included items like turkey, pies, and the like, others were sure to bring their own personal touch to the meal. President William Howard Taft believed his dinner wasn’t complete without serving a mince pie sent to him by his aunt Delia.

Oftentimes the first ladies of the White House also played an integral role of creating an authentic menu for the president, friends, family, and oftentimes, staff. President William McKinley’s wife, Ida, helped craft a meal alongside the White House chef that included a 26-pound turkey from Rhode Island stuffed with oysters, new potatoes from Idaho, cranberry and celery, and mince and pumpkin pies.

The iconic Kennedy clan left the White House for the holiday, but they never let the quality of the food suffer while there. First lady Jacqueline Kennedy took great care when it came to the cuisine they were serving. At her discretion, they hired French chef René Verdon, who even became an American citizen during his tenure at the White House.

President Barack Obama carries on Thanksgiving at the White House by including his family, friend, and staff in the celebration, according to a White House representative. While the White House declined to disclose this year’s menu, for the last several years the first family has dined on a rather traditional menu including items like turkey, ham, oyster stuffing, and mashed potatoes. However, the Obamas have a sweet spot for pies and serve six different kinds such as huckleberry, banana cream, and cherry.


Click here for a White House Thanksgiving timeline.