Main Content

Thanksgiving at the White House is a quiet holiday for the president's family, featuring a meal that traditionally included turkey, Chesapeake Bay oysters, rockfish from the Potomac, terrapin from the Eastern shore, cranberries from Cape Cod, and mince and pumpkin pies.

October 3, 1789

Following Congress's recommendation, President George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a day of public thanksgiving, the first time Thanksgiving was celebrated under the new Constitution.


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 Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln 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.

October 3, 1863

President Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November to be regularly commemorated as Thanksgiving Day. His 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."

November 28, 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 the 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.

October 26, 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."

November 25, 1897

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

November 27, 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.

November 28, 1912

President William Howard 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 a Thanksgiving dinner featuring a turkey from Horace Vose, the Rhode Island "poultry king" who had been sending turkeys to grace the presidential Thanksgiving table for years.

November 26, 1914

President Woodrow Wilson spent Thanksgiving at the Williamstown, Massachusetts home of his daughter Jessie and her husband Francis B. Sayre. Upon arrival at the train station Wilson was greeted by students from Williams College and by the first snowflakes of the season. On Thanksgiving morning Wilson sharpened his appetite for Thanksgiving dinner by taking a sleigh ride.

November 29, 1917

The Woodrow Wilsons' first wartime Thanksgiving dinner was a fairly economical one: cream of oyster soup with slices of hot buttered toast; turkey with trimmings and vegetables (but no cranberries); and pumpkin pie. First Lady Edith Wilson wanted to abide by the food conservation programs spearheaded by Herbert Hoover, head of the U.S. Food Administration. In the evening the Wilsons attended the D.C. Auxiliary of the Navy Relief Society's ball at Rauscher's at Connecticut Avenue and L Streets, N.W.; this catering establishment featured an upstairs ballroom.

November 16, 1918

Five days after the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson said in his Thanksgiving proclamation: "This year we have special and moving cause to be grateful and to rejoice. God has in His good pleasure given us peace. Complete victory has brought us, not peace alone, but the confident promise of a new day as well in which justice shall replace force and jealous intrigue among the nations."

November 23, 1927

President Calvin Coolidge delivered his Thanksgiving proclamation over the radio at 8:15 p.m. to a network of stations across the country before an evening musical program that culminated with Mozart's opera "The Magic Flute."

November 28, 1929

The Herbert Hoovers enjoyed a quiet Thanksgiving dinner at home with their son Allan, on break from studies at Harvard University. 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 (Catholic won 48 to 6) and to the $10,000 Thanksgiving Day Handicap at Bowie Race Track.

November 26, 1936

Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first president to celebrate Thanksgiving outside the United States when he had Thanksgiving dinner in the south Atlantic on board the U.S.S. Indianapolis on his way to the Inter-American Peace Conference in Buenos Aires. The turkey had been raised in Utah and flown to Washington before a train trip to Charleston, South Carolina and a rendezvous with the president on board ship. Roosevelt shared the feast with the captain, executive officer, navigator and chaplain of the Indianapolis.

October 31, 1939

With five Thursdays in November in this year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving forward by one week to Thursday, November 23 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.

December 26, 1941

President Roosevelt signed legislation (H.J. Res 41) designating the fourth Thursday in November as the federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.

November 26, 1942

After reading the first wartime Thanksgiving proclamation in 25 years over the radio, President Roosevelt led 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.

December 15, 1947

President Harry Truman, often credited as originator of the modern day turkey pardon tradition, was the first president to receive a turkey a 47-pounder 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 on December 23, 1947, but it did begin an annual news photo op that endures today. The December 23rd turkey weighed 35 pounds and was a gift of Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon, who brought the bird from a Roseburg, Oregon poultry show.

November 26, 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. At "Mamie's Cabin," the walls were hung with photographs of all the 18 previous homes the Eisenhowers had stayed at between their marriage in 1916 and their move to the White House 37 years later. As the Eisenhowers began partaking of a 39-pound turkey from Nebraska, the president noted that U.S. military personnel were no longer dying in Korea and expressed hope that "may we never again have to have our loved ones go off to war."

November 19, 1963

A majestic 55-pound white turkey with a sign around its neck reading "Good Eating, Mr. President" 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. "We'll just let this one grow," said the president, asking that the bird be returned to its California breeding farm. "It's our Thanksgiving present to him." White House press secretary Pierre Salinger announced that the Kennedys would spend their Thanksgiving holiday at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, a tradition for the Kennedy clan tragically, a journey that was never undertaken.

November 23, 1971

First Lady Pat Nixon filled in for the president at the annual presentation of the Thanksgiving turkey in this case, two live California turkeys by the Poultry and Egg Board and National Turkey Federation. The Nixon family would not eat the live birds but dined instead on two ready-to-cook frozen turkeys that were also presented by the poultry and egg representatives. President Richard Nixon passed on the photo opportunity to spend the afternoon visiting the Washington Redskins practice facility.

November 17, 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."

November 28, 1985

President Ronald and First Lady Nancy Reagan traveled to their 688-acre ranch 30 miles north of Santa Barbara, California, to join some of their children, grandchildren and other family members for the Thanksgiving holidays. A local pilot, Pete Cottle, flew over Rancho del Cielo with a 120-foot red-and-white banner that read: "Happy Thanksgiving Ron and Nancy." In addition to turkey, the Reagans and family enjoyed a menu of cranberries, corn bread dressing, salad, mashed potatoes, monkey bread, string beans with almonds and pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream.

November 17, 1989

After many years of turkey gifts and presentations to the White House, President George H.W. Bush officially "pardoned" an unnamed, 50-pound turkey, establishing a tradition followed to this day.

November 28, 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.

November 22, 2007

The first family, President and Mrs. George Bush, daughters Barbara and Jenna, and Jenna's fiance 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. From Camp David President Bush called U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan, Iraq and on board ship to extend Thanksgiving greetings and thank the soldiers, sailors, Air Force personnel and Marines for their service and dedication.

November 25, 2009

President Barack Obama pardoned a North Carolina turkey named "Courage" as daughters Sasha and Malia looked on. "I'm told Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson actually ate their turkeys," Obama observed. "[T]oday I am pleased to announce that thanks to the interventions of Malia and Sasha . . . Courage will . . . be spared this terrible and delicious fate." Courage would be retired to Disneyland after leading the Thanksgiving Day parade there.

You Might Also Like