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Free Bird: The Presidential Pardoning of the Thanksgiving Turkey

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The bizarre practice of pardoning a turkey at the White House has made its way into late-night comedy, political cartoons, and even an episode of the “The West Wing” over the years. On Wednesday, the highly anticipated event will be live-streamed at 2:40 p.m. EST and viewers can tune in to watch President Obama pardon his final turkey and offer up the last of his bad dad jokes.

You may recall this famous line from Obama’s 2014 ceremony speech, “Today I am taking an action fully within my legal authority — to spare the lives of two turkeys, Mac and Cheese, from a terrible and delicious fate.”

Or maybe this one from 2015. “It is hard to believe that this is my seventh year of pardoning a turkey. Time flies, even if turkeys don’t,” he told the crowd, as his daughters cracked embarrassed smiles.

In short, the ceremony shines a spotlight on the most show-worthy bird, chosen by the National Turkey Federation. The selection process requires lengthy auditioning, but in the end, all that hard work pays off for a lucky pick and his alternate pal.

“There is a flock of 20 to 40 turkeys that are raised in a private barn. The farmer will socialize them with small children and make sure they’re used to loud noises and camera flashes. We want an iconic turkey that has a really strong gobble and is able to extend its feathers upwards,” said Kimmon Williams, Public Relations Manager at the National Turkey Federation.

After the birds are chosen, they head to the nation’s capital where they lodge in a top secret hotel near the White House during the days leading up to the ceremony. This year, the turkeys were selected from a family farm in rural Iowa, marking the seventh year of the Iowa Turkey Federation’s participation. Following the pardon, the turkeys will retire to live out their days at a Virginia Tech teaching farm.

So where did this American tradition come from? Some iterations of the presidential turkey pardon date back to the days of Lincoln, who in 1863, spared a turkey from his table at the protests of his son, Tad. Harry Truman was the first to receive a bird from the National Turkey Federation. But it wasn’t until George H. W. Bush’s presidency that the word “pardon” was officially coined.

Go behind the scenes and follow all the social media buzz around this year’s White House pardoning ceremony using #TurkeyPardon2016.