Thanksgiving at the White House  ›  Timeline

New Hampshire author and editor Sara Josepha Hale, active in women's benevolent societies and well known as the socially influential editor of Godey's Lady's Book, petitioned Congress and five presidents to create a national holiday for Thanksgiving. Celebrating and giving thanks to the Creator for abundant autumn harvests was an established New England tradition by the mid-19th century. The governors of each state issued holiday proclamations that varied in date from state to state and from year to year.

Mrs. Hale's long campaign to create a unified national Thanksgiving holiday met with success when President Abraham Lincoln recognized the symbolic wartime significance of the commemoration and signed a proclamation on October 3, 1863, establishing the last Thursday of November "as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise." Today Americans continue to celebrate Thanksgiving on the Fourth Thursday of November each year and our presidents traditionally issue a formal proclamation of thanks.

1863  ›  President Lincoln's Thanksgiving holiday proclamation implored the "Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation," and to restore "peace, harmony, tranquility and Union."

1865  ›  The tradition of "pardoning" White House turkeys has been traced to President Abraham Lincoln's clemency to a turkey recorded in an 1865 dispatch by White House reporter Noah Brooks who noted, "About a year before, a live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln's son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. . . . [Tad's] plea was admitted and the turkey's life spared."

1878  ›  A large Thanksgiving dinner gathering included President Rutherford B. and Mrs. Hayes, Colonels W.K. Rogers and O.L. Pruden, the president's private secretaries, and William H. Crook and Charles L. Chapman, executive clerks, and the doormen with their families. After conclusion of this dinner, the Hayes retired to the Red Room to sing hymns and invited their cooks and the African-American staff to enjoy their own Thanksgiving meal in the State Dining Room.

1883  ›  President Chester A. Arthur proclaimed: "The prevalence of health, the fullness of the harvests, the stability of peace and order, the growth of fraternal feeling, the spread of intelligence and learning, the continued enjoyment of civil and religious liberty—all these and countless other blessings are cause for reverent rejoicing."

1897  ›  First Lady Ida McKinley directs the White House chef to prepare a plain Thanksgiving dinner that included a 26 pound turkey for Rhode Island stuffed with oysters, new potatoes from Idaho given to the McKinleys by a friend, cranberry and celery, mince and pumpkin pie.

1902  ›  After a vigorous horseback ride out into northwest Washington with First Lady Edith Roosevelt and a party of friends, President Theodore Roosevelt spent a quiet afternoon at the White House. On hearing that workmen building the new west wing annex could not take off the holiday because of the tight schedule and every minute counted, the president insisted that the men be served an early afternoon turkey dinner.

1912  ›  President William H. Taft anxiously awaited the arrival of a big mince pie from his favorite aunt, Delia Torrey, of Millbury, Massachusetts. It arrived in plenty of time for Thanksgiving dinner.

1927  ›  President Calvin Coolidge delivered his Thanksgiving proclamation over the radio to a network of stations across the country before an evening musical program that culminated with Mozart's opera The Magic Flute.

1929  ›  The Hoovers enjoyed a quiet Thanksgiving dinner at home with their son Allan. The president started the day exercising with the "medicine ball cabinet" and attending church with Mrs. Hoover. It was a big sports day in Washington as crowds flocked to a football clash between Catholic University and George Washington at Brookland Stadium and to the Thanksgiving Day Handicap at Bowie Race Track.

1939  ›  With five Thursdays in November in this year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving forward by one week to extend the shopping period for Christmas to boost retail sales. The experiment was called a "rabbit trick" and proved unpopular with the public and retailers. The president reverted back to the traditional date in 1941 and Congress enacted legislation in 1942 establishing the fourth Thursday in November as the official day.

1942  ›  After reading the first wartime Thanksgiving proclamation in 25 years over the radio, President Franklin D. Roosevelt lead the nation in prayer for a return of the days of peace. The White House dinner menu included clam cocktail, clear soup, roast turkey with chestnut stuffing and cranberry sauce, Spanish corn, small sausages and beans, sweet potato cones, grapefruit salad, pumpkin pie and cheese, coffee, and ice cream.

1947  ›  President Harry Truman, often credited as originator of the modern day turkey pardon tradition, was the first president to receive a turkey from the Poultry and Egg Board and National Turkey Federation. Although the president did not "pardon" a turkey, the bird received a reprieve. The turkey presentation to President Truman actually came for Christmas in December 1947, but it did begin an annual news photo op that endures today.

1953  ›  President and Mrs. Dwight Eisenhower spent the Thanksgiving holiday in Augusta, Georgia, where the president played golf. They stayed in the newly built "Mamie's Cabin" located near the clubhouse of the Augusta National Golf Club.

1961  ›  A majestic 55-pound white turkey received a reprieve from President John F. Kennedy in the company of presenter Minority Leader Senator Everett Dirksen for the Poultry and Egg Board and the National Turkey Federation. The Kennedys would spend their Thanksgiving holiday at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, a tradition for the Kennedy clan.

1971  ›  First Lady Patricia Nixon filled in for the president at the annual presentation of the Thanksgiving turkey by the Poultry and Egg Board and National Turkey Federation. President Richard Nixon passed on the photo opportunity to spend the afternoon visiting the Washington Redskins training camp.

1979  ›  As Thanksgiving approached, the fate of the hostages held in Iran weighed heavily on the president and all Americans. President Jimmy Carter requested special prayers at churches and synagogues and public meetings, noting "We join with people of all faiths throughout the world who adhere to fundamental principles of human rights and international law. We are united with them in seeking an end to acts of terrorism against innocent people."

1985  ›  President and Mrs. Reagan traveled to their ranch near Santa Barbara, California, for the Thanksgiving holidays. They were surprised by a Thanksgiving greeting from the sky as they gathered for a turkey dinner. Local pilot, Pete Cottle, flew over Rancho del Cielo with a 120-foot red-and-white banner that read: "Happy Thanksgiving Ron and Nancy."

1989  ›  After many years of turkey gifts and presentations to the White House, President George H.W. Bush officially "pardons" the turkey establishing that tradition followed to this day.

1996  ›  President and Mrs. Clinton spent Thanksgiving Day with family and friends at Camp David. The Thanksgiving Day menu included Turkey and Dressing with Bread Stuffing, Giblet Gravy, Mashed Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Green Beans, Cranberry Mold, Relish Tray (Pickles, Celery, Tomatoes, Green Onions, Green and Black Olives, Carrots), Fruit Salad, Cranberry Salad, Pecan and Pumpkin Pies.

2007  ›  The first family, President and Mrs. George Bush, daughters Barbara and Jenna, and Jenna's fiancée Henry Hager enjoyed a quiet Thanksgiving at Camp David in Maryland and tucked into a traditional turkey dinner with jellied cranberry molds, whipped sweet potato soufflé and pumpkin mousse trifle.

2009  ›  President Barack Obama pardoned a North Carolina turkey named "Courage" as daughters Sasha and Malia looked on. Courage would be retired to Disneyland after leading the Thanksgiving Day parade there.


Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of October 3, 1863

Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of October 3, 1863. National Archives and Records Administration

»  Historic Photographs › White House Thanksgiving

»  Thanksgiving at the White House › A Timeline

»  The White House Tradition of "Pardoning" a Turkey

»  Horace Vose and the White House Holiday Turkeys

»  Historical Theme › The Holiday Season at the White House