The History of US Presidents and Thanksgiving: A Time-Honored Tradition

george w bush thanksgiving with troops

Thanksgiving is a cherished holiday in the United States, where families gather to express gratitude and share a feast. Over the course of history, US presidents have played a significant role in celebrating this national holiday, embodying its spirit by engaging in various traditions. From the first Thanksgiving in the White House to the annual turkey pardoning, let’s delve into the rich history of US presidents and Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving in the White House:

The tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving in the White House dates back to President George Washington’s proclamation in 1789. However, it wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln introduced the concept of an official Thanksgiving holiday that it gained widespread recognition. On November 26, 1863, during the height of the Civil War, Lincoln designated the last Thursday of November as a day of thanks.

Presidents and Thanksgiving in the 1800s:

In the 1800s, Thanksgiving remained an important occasion for US presidents despite the challenges faced during this era. President Thomas Jefferson, while in office from 1801 to 1809, declined to issue Thanksgiving proclamations, believing in the separation of church and state. However, his successors, such as President James Madison and President Andrew Jackson, resumed the tradition.

In the late 19th century, President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation finally solidified Thanksgiving as a national holiday. As the years progressed, presidents including Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Harrison continued to deliver Thanksgiving proclamations, emphasizing unity and gratitude during periods of political tension and economic growth.

Presidents and Thanksgiving in the 1900s:

In the early 1900s, Thanksgiving celebrations became more elaborate, reflecting the grandeur of the times. President Theodore Roosevelt, known for his love of hunting, upheld the tradition of hunting for Thanksgiving dinner. He often invited friends, family, and foreign dignitaries to partake in the feast.

During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, Thanksgiving became a platform for promoting social welfare initiatives. In 1939, FDR moved Thanksgiving up one week to extend the holiday shopping season during the Great Depression. Known as “Franksgiving,” this decision faced resistance, and ultimately, in 1941, Thanksgiving was fixed to the fourth Thursday in November by an Act of Congress.

Presidents and Thanksgiving in the 1980’s:

In modern times, US presidents have continued the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving in the White House. President George H.W. Bush started a unique White House tradition in 1989: the annual turkey pardoning. Each year, two turkeys are presented to the president, and one lucky bird is “pardoned” from ending up on the holiday table. The pardoned turkey is sent to a farm or sanctuary, symbolizing compassion and mercy.

Presidents and Thanksgiving in the 2000’s:

George W. Bush set a new standard for Thanksgiving celebration by helping serving troops in Iraq during the war. Futures presidents would also take on this task over the next decade while the US continued it’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama further embraced this tradition, using it as an opportunity to bring attention to charitable causes. He often donated the pardoned turkeys to local food banks or military organizations, underlining the significance of gratitude and giving back to the community during the holiday season.

Thanksgiving Meals at the White House:

The meals served for Thanksgiving in the White House have exemplified the diversity and rich culinary heritage of the United States. From traditional roast turkey to regional specialties, each president has put their own spin on the Thanksgiving feast.

For instance, President John F. Kennedy sought to celebrate America’s cultural mosaic by incorporating dishes from different states into the menu. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy introduced French-inspired cuisine into the White House Thanksgiving meal, highlighted by a consommé with Madeira wine and chestnut stuffing.

Throughout history, US presidents have played an integral role in honoring and celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday. From the first Thanksgiving in the White House to annual traditions like turkey pardoning, the nation’s leaders have embraced this occasion as an opportunity to promote unity, gratitude, and giving back.