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The exact origin of the ceremony is somewhat contested. Lore of the practice dates back to Abraham Lincoln, who supposedly granted clemency to a turkey in 1863. But was it an official pardon? Historians say, not quite.
John F. Kennedy appears to be the first to use his presidential powers to spare a turkey. In 1963 he said, "Let's keep him going." He was also the first Commander in Chief to not eat the turkey.
Let me assure you and this fine Tom Turkey that he will not end up on anyone's dinner table — not this guy. He's granted a presidential pardon as of right now.
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Subsequent presidents have followed suit. Barack Obama sent his first turkey, Courage, to "live out the rest of his days in peace and tranquility in Disneyland." (As these turkeys are bred to be eaten, they put on weight quickly and tend to have short lifespans.)