This Thanksgiving, our reflective nation again looks inward, contemplating the big questions that define the occasion:
1. When did the United States of America get in the business of pardoning turkeys?
2. Was ever a pardoned turkey served up on White House china with a side of wild rice, despite the president's clemency?
3. 40,000 years from now, when turkeys rule the Earth (as is widely predicted), will President Turkey pardon a naked human with kind words amid a cacophony of whirring White House Press Corps cameras hoisted by a cohort of journalist turkeys?
The First Turkey Pardon
History is rife with unsung occasions that decide the course of human civilization. The appearance of writing in ancient Sumeria in 3200 B.C.E., the establishment of the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture in Romania in 3000 B.C.E., the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 B.C.E., the first time a grown man in a suit made a formal decree about a turkey in 1963.
The first official Presidential Turkey Pardon is of course a matter of debate. The first recorded instance of Presidential Turkey Mercy (as it's called) happened on Abe Lincoln's watch. President Lincoln had been gifted a beautiful turkey for Thanksgiving, but when the time came to ready the bird for, you know, eating -- Lincoln's son Tad begged mercy on the turkey's behalf. The turkey was spared.
Modern Presidents Make it Official
Nearly 100 years later, when a turkey was presented to President John F. Kennedy, the bird had a little sign around its neck that read 'Good eating, Mr. President!" If the doomed turkey knew what the sign around its neck said, there is no record of its response. But Kennedy apparently found the cruelly lighthearted sign unsettling, and he sent the turkey back to the farm that had gifted it.
bird cognition scientists agree: the pardoned Thanksgiving turkey may not even know it is at the White House
When President Richard M. Nixon received several beautiful Thanksgiving turkeys as gifts, he graciously deeded them to a local petting zoo. Is it better to be killed outright and eaten, or mauled by grasping, grape-jelly-fingered 5 year-olds for the rest of your natural life? A rhetorical question.
It was President Ronald Reagan who first actually used the word "pardon" in his sparing of a turkey. But it was President George Herbert Walker Bush who codified the Turkey Pardon as a White House tradition.
And President Bill Clinton? He was once heard to exult in the White House Rose Garden "This is my eighth turkey!" As world leaders will.
Turkey mercy is clearly an enviable perk of office.
The Gratitude Attitude
So it is that every Thanksgiving, the President of the United States formally pardons a single extremely fortunate turkey. In the event, there is little evidence of turkey-gratitude in the room. When the turkey gets the joyous news, the television viewer sees an expressionless and vaguely reptilian turkey face twitching and staring like a wild-eyed madman at the gathered press.
The gathering of humans for Thanksgiving is another story. We may see our pals and families and loved ones throughout the year in the towns where we live—in bustling public plazas, sun-drenched city parks, at our kids' birthday parties, in our work spaces, at the movies—or in the lamplit quietude of the rooms we all inhabit. We're traveling through each others' lives and homes and conversations with no real sense of passing months, passing years. The river we're all borne down is constant. We can't always feel we're moving, but we are. Together.
Prosperity is in the Eye of the Prosperous
Thanksgiving is a very deliberate opportunity to consciously — even awkwardly — stop the clock and embrace the plain fact: there is love. The occasion is wholly invented, but priceless. We give thanks for each other -- not for the overstuffed cornucopia and its seasonal symbol of largesse and material prosperity. Who do you possibly thank for material prosperity when so many have none? Prosperity is in the eye of the prosperous, and takes many many many forms.
It's Thanksgiving. Wrap your arms around prosperity. Your prosperity. It's everywhere you are, and everyone you love. It's even those people you just like a lot.
Happy Bird-Day from KOS. We like you. A lot. Eat your vegetables.