The White House Thanksgiving: History Of How Presidents Celebrate The Holiday
By | November 27, 2019
George Washington held multiple Thanksgiving celebrations
Thanksgiving has been an American tradition since before the country was actually a country, and over the 200-plus years that the United States has been thriving, Turkey Day has been celebrated in a myriad of different ways by our nation’s leaders. Some presidents went whole-hog---or whole-turkey, if you prefer---and had meals with all the trimmings, while others ignored the holiday completely. Our long list of presidents have celebrated the holiday just as differently as their constituents, which makes for a fascinating look back at the history of White House Thanksgivings.
President Washington was a man who liked to give thanks. The actual holiday that we know as Thanksgiving wasn't a thing in 1789, but throughout the Revolutionary War, Washington was known for hosting days of giving thanks, so it's not a wild revelation that he issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a day of public thanksgiving.
John Adams declared two days of thanksgiving in the spring
In the early days of the Union, people weren't too hung up on having Thanksgiving in November. As straight-laced as the founding fathers were, they were big into doing their own thing, which is why John Adams declared two days of fasting and thanksgiving in May 1798 and April 1799. His second proclamation read in part:
I do hereby recommend accordingly, that Thursday, the 25th day of April next, be observed throughout the United States of America as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens on that day abstain as far as may be from their secular occupations, devote the time to the sacred duties of religion in public and in private; that they call to mind our numerous offenses against the Most High God, confess them before Him with the sincerest penitence, implore His pardoning mercy, through the Great Mediator and Redeemer, for our past transgressions, and that through the grace of His Holy Spirit we may be disposed and enabled to yield a more suitable obedience to His righteous requisitions in time to come.
Later in life, Adams believed that his pronouncement of two thanksgivings, thus mixing church and state, is what kept him from winning another term in office.
Thomas Jefferson was not a fan of Thanksgiving
It's not that Thomas Jefferson didn’t want people to give thanks in their own way; it's just that he didn't think it was the government's place to tell them what to do. In 1801, he decided not to mark the holiday with any festivities, thus starting rumors that he hated the very concept of Thanksgiving. In 1802, he nearly wrote a letter to the American people telling them why he didn't want to celebrate, which included a healthy dose of shade thrown at his enemies, the Federalists. Instead, he just said that he believed in the separation of church and state, and left it at that.
James Madison declared three different thanksgiving holidays
During the War of 1812, President Madison announced three different days of thanksgiving after requests from Congress. August 20, 1812; September 9, 1813; and January 12, 1815 were the final three official Thanksgiving holidays until Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday during his presidency. Madison's proclamation in 1815 read in part:
No people ought to feel greater obligations to celebrate the goodness of the Great Disposer of Events of the Destiny of Nations than the people of the United States. His kind providence originally conducted them to one of the best portions of the dwelling place allotted for the great family of the human race.
John Quincy Adams wasn’t into Thanksgiving
Like Thomas Jefferson before him, John Quincy Adams didn't care for mixing church and state, so he not only shied away from declaring a national day of Thanksgiving, he refused to do it altogether. He and Jefferson weren't the only presidents who felt this way. Andrew Jackson was also a staunch believer in keeping the church out of the the way of the people.
The presidents who followed Jackson either didn't want to broach the topic of establishing a thanksgiving holiday or they just weren't bothered with it. Martin Van Buren celebrated Christmas but no Thanksgiving, and William Henry Harrison served such a short term that he never got to see either one.
John Tyler proposes a spring Thanksgiving in honor of a former president
Not all Thanksgiving celebrations have concerned the reaping of the harvest. Some of them were all about sowing the ground---specifically with presidents. On April 15, 1841, President Tyler proposed a national day of Thanksgiving following the death of former President William Henry Harrison. He told the people:
When a Christian people feel themselves to be overtaken by a great public calamity, it becomes them to humble themselves under the dispensation of Divine Providence ... to the end that on that day we may all with one accord join in humble and reverential approach to Him in whose hands we are, invoking Him to inspire us with a proper spirit and temper of heart and mind under these frowns of His providence and still to bestow His gracious benedictions upon our Government and our country.
James K. Polk hosted the first White House Thanksgiving dinner
Today, the White House hosts dinners for every function, but during his presidency, Polk actually hosted the first Thanksgiving dinner at the White House. The details of the feast are lost to time, but seeing as Sarah Polk was a devout Presbyterian who banned dancing, card-playing, and alcoholic beverages from the White House, it couldn't have been an exciting party. However, Mrs. Polk did have a pretty rocking recipe for mulled wine and her own cookbook, so it was likely that the meal was great even if no one was allowed to express it too merrily.
Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan were not hot on Thanksgiving
What do Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan have in common aside from that whole presidency thing? None of them wanted to make Thanksgiving into a national holiday. This was deeply offensive to Sarah Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book, who wrote an editorial in 1837 that described Thanksgiving as:
... a festival which will never become obsolete, for it cherishes the best affections of the heart---the social and domestic ties. It calls together the dispersed members of the family circle, and brings plenty, joy and gladness to the dwellings of the poor and lowly.
She wrote to each of the party-pooping presidents, ordering them to heed her holiday demands. None of them did. Ordering presidents around has a pretty low success rate.
Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving into a national holiday
In 1864, Hale's nagging finally paid off, and Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thanksgiving in November "a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father." Lincoln's proclamation asked the country to come together as brothers and heal the wounds suffered during the Civil War. A year later, Lincoln pardoned the first turkey that was cut loose from the White House. White House reporter Noah Brooks noted:
... 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.
Andrew Johnson began the Thanksgiving shell game
Even though Lincoln stated that Thanksgiving should be on the final Thursday of November, the very next president changed the date and started a huge mix-up that lasted until the early 20th century. In 1865, Johnson changed the date of Thanksgiving to the first Thursday in November, allowing the following presidents to flip-flop the date around however they liked. Johnson was one of the most criticized presidents in history, although that had less to do with his thoughts on Thanksgiving and more about his opposition to the 14th amendment. Still, Thanksgiving on the first week of November? Gross.
Ulysses S. Grant gave a kind Thanksgiving blessing
While we tend to think of President Grant as a tough leader who cared more about the military, he genuinely cared about people coming together with their families. His Thanksgiving blessing was actually quite long, reading in part:
The procession of the seasons has again enabled the husbandman to garner the fruits of successful toil. Industry has been generally well awarded. We are at peace with all nations, and tranquility, with few exceptions, prevails at home. Within the past year we have in the main been free from the ills which elsewhere have affected our kind ... I therefore recommend that on Thursday, the 30th day of November next, the people meet in their respective places of worship, and there make the usual acknowledgments to Almighty God for the blessings he has conferred upon them; for their merciful exemption from evil, and invoke His protection and kindness for their less fortunate brethren whom, in His wisdom he has deemed it best to chastise.
Rutherford B. Hayes hosted a White House dinner for his staff
On November 28, 1878, President Hayes hosted a large Thanksgiving dinner with his wife, Colonels W.K. Rogers and O.L. Pruden, executive clerks William H. Crook and Charles L. Chapman, and his private secretaries,, as well as the White House workers and their families. It wasn't just a kind gesture; it was unprecedented at the time. Following the end of the dinner, Hayes and his family made their way back to the Red Room, where they sang hymns while the cooks and staff enjoyed their own Thanksgiving meal in the State Dining Room. This kind of gratitude is just what Thanksgiving is about.
Chester A. Arthur gave a blessing after President Garfield passed in 1881
After President Garfield passed away in office, his successor, Chester A. Arthur, had to step up to the plate and offer a Thanksgiving address in his stead just two months after Garfield's death. Two years later, on October 26, 1883, Arthur issued another Thanksgiving proclamation, in which he stated:
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.
Grover Cleveland felt that it was extremely important to celebrate the holiday
By the time Grover Cleveland entered the White House, it was commonplace for presidents to issue proclamations from their office about the national day of feasting and prayer. Cleveland wrote that he wanted Americans, no matter where they are, to celebrate the holiday. His statement reads:
It is fitting and proper that a nation thus favored should on one day in every year…publicly acknowledge the goodness of God and return thanks to Him for all His gracious gifts. Therefore I, Grover Cleveland, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate and set apart Thursday the 26th of November instant as a day of public Thanksgiving and prayer, and do invoke the observance of the same by all the people of the land ... I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving.
You might have more in common with President McKinley than you think
Depending on how you celebrate Thanksgiving, you might be eating a meal similar to the McKinley family's in the White House on November 25, 1897. On that Thanksgiving, First Lady Ida McKinley instructed the White House chef to roast a 26-lb. turkey from Rhode Island that was stuffed with oysters and new potatoes from Idaho. On the side, they had cranberries, mince, and pumpkin pie. It's not clear if this is the first time the "classic" Thanksgiving dinner was enjoyed in November, but it's definitely one of the most highly publicized. Now, if you please, pass the oysters.
Teddy Roosevelt celebrated with a horse ride, food, and silence
President Theodore Roosevelt's Thanksgiving on November 27, 1902 was essentially a summation of his entire presidency: He was stoic, he got back to nature, and he made sure the American workers were taken care of. The president began his Thanksgiving with a morning horseback ride into the northwest D.C. area with First Lady Edith Roosevelt and a group of six friends. After retiring to the White House, he enjoyed an afternoon of silence before dinner at 7:30 p.m. During the day, Roosevelt heard that workers who were building an annex in the west wing couldn't take time off for the holiday, so he sent the men an early afternoon turkey dinner.
William Howard Taft enjoyed his aunt's mince pie
Everyone has a relative they're most excited to see at their Thanksgiving gathering, and President Taft is no different. On November 28, 1912, Taft patiently waited for his aunt Delia's mince pie to be delivered from Millbury, Massachusetts so it could be eaten alongside a turkey from Horace Vose, the "Poultry King" of Rhode Island. If you get the chance to have dinner with any president, living or dead, choose Taft. The guy knew how to eat.
Woodrow Wilson tried to keep things economical
On November 29, 1917, President Wilson was in the middle of World War I, and First Lady Edith Wilson had made it her mission to keep the Wilsons on the good side of the Food Administration, which had recently released a food conservation program. As such, the Wilson administration decided to forgo an elaborate meal. For their lunch, the Wilsons had a turkey with trimming and vegetables as well as cream of oyster soup and slices of hot buttered toast. However, that night, the couple did attend a society ball at Rauscher's on Connecticut Avenue. A war is no reason not to dress up, right?
Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover kept things chill
Not every 20th-century president had a big Thanksgiving. Some of them just had a quiet lunch with their families like the WASPs they were. President Coolidge's Thanksgiving speech was broadcast by radio at 8:15 P.M. on November 23, 1927, before closing out the evening with Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute. Similarly, Hoover idly hung around the White House that morning, exercising with his medicine ball before having dinner with his son, Allan. His only exciting outing that day was attending church with his wife.
FDR changed the date of Thanksgiving twice
One of the greatest trials of FDR's presidency occurred in 1939, when November had five Thursdays instead of four. Rather than keep Thanksgiving at the end of the month like Lincoln ordered, he moved the holiday forward a week to November 23 so people would have more days to shop for Christmas. People weren't happy about the change, and it threw the nation into turmoil. Some people celebrated on the fifth Thursday, and others on the fourth. It was a madhouse, so on December 26, 1941, FDR signed a law designating the fourth Thursday in November as the federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.
President Truman had to let up on rationing so people could eat turkey
When America was in the middle of rebuilding after World War II, people weren't thinking about having turkey for Thanksgiving. Belts had been tightened throughout the war, and we weren't in the black yet. That meant there were no huge feasts, but people still wanted to have turkey on Thanksgiving. At the time, a task force called the Citizens Food Committee enacted rationing days like "Meatless Monday." That was all well and good, except Thanksgiving fell on the considerably less catchy "Egg-less & Poultry-less Thursday." Americans freaked out, so Truman briefly lifted the ban on poultry, but the egg ration stayed, which kept pies out of the equation. We all have to make compromises for the good of the country sometimes.
Dwight Eisenhower spent the holiday golfing
Whether across the country or just the street, most people travel for the holidays, and that includes presidents. In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower left D.C. for the wilds of Augusta, Georgia, where he stayed in the newly constructed Mamie's Cabin. It was right next to the Augusta National Golf Club, so he spent most of his holiday putting on the green and avoiding sand traps. When he wasn't golfing, he was chowing down on a 39-lb. turkey from Nebraska. Eisenhower's proclamation that day read in part:
For the courage and vision of our forebears who settled a wilderness and founded a Nation; for the "blessings of liberty" which the framers of our Constitution sought to secure for themselves and for their posterity, and which are so abundantly realized in our land today; for the unity of spirit which has made our country strong; and for the continuing faith under His guidance that has kept us a religious people with freedom of worship for all, we should kneel in humble thanksgiving. Especially are we grateful this year for the truce in battle-weary Korea, which gives to anxious men and women throughout the world the hope that there may be an enduring peace.
JFK summarized the presidential past of Thanksgiving in his final proclamation
President Kennedy only had a few holidays to spend with the American people, and while he spent most of his Thanksgivings with his family in Rhode Island, he also made sure to give a proclamation every year. His final speech to the American people essentially summed up the history of Thanksgiving in the United States. Kennedy never made it to Thanksgiving Day 1963, but earlier that year, he said in part:
Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together and for the faith which united them with their God ... And so too, in the midst of America’s tragic civil war, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November 1863 as a day to renew our gratitude for America’s 'fruitful fields,' for our 'national strength and vigor,' and for all our 'singular deliverances and blessings.' Let us therefore proclaim our gratitude to Providence for manifold blessings - let us be humbly thankful for inherited ideals - and let us resolve to share those blessings and those ideals with our fellow human beings throughout the world.
LBJ had to deal with JFK's assassination during his first Thanksgiving in office
John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, leaving Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to pick up the pieces. After he was sworn in as president, he delivered a short series of remarks on his sixth day in office: Thanksgiving. He said:
Tonight, on this Thanksgiving, I come before you to ask your help, to ask your strength, to ask your prayers that God may guard this Republic and guide my every labor. All of us have lived through seven days that none of us will ever forget. We are not given the divine wisdom to answer why this has been, but we are given the human duty of determining what is to be, what is to be for America, for the world, for the cause we lead, for all the hopes that live in our hearts.
1972 was a pretty good Thanksgiving for Nixon
The only good Thanksgiving for Nixon occurred in 1972. Every other year of his presidency, there was always something going on, be it a pesky Watergate investigation or having to eat a frozen turkey for a photo opportunity instead of something fresh. In 1972, however, just after his reelection, Nixon spent 10 days at Camp David feasting on roast turkey, bread dressing, giblet gravy, Colcannon, green peas and onions, fresh cranberry salad mold, minted pears, hot dinner rolls, and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. It was one of the few extended moments of relaxation in a tumultuous presidency.
Jimmy Carter was thinking about hostages in 1979
As Thanksgiving 1979 approached, President Carter was a little more concerned about the hostages being held in Iran, making it nearly impossible to have a truly comfortable dinner. That year, his proclamation was one that blended sadness with hope for the new year:
The ensuing years have multiplied our nation’s blessings. We have been delivered from repeated perils, and we have been blessed with abundance beyond the imaginings of those who offered thanks in the chill of approaching winter more than three-and-one-half centuries ago. Succeeding generations have broadened the freedom they cherished and the opportunity they sought, and built a mighty nation on the strong foundations they laid. In this two hundred and fourth year of our independence, we have good reasons for gratitude: for liberty in a world where repression is common, for peace in a world of threats and terror and war, for a bounteous harvest in a world where hunger and despair still stalk much of mankind.
Ronald Reagan had a California Thanksgiving in 1985
It's good to get away for the holidays, especially when you’ve got a job as stressful as freelance writer or President of the United States of America. In 1985, the Reagans traveled to their ranch north of Santa Barbara, California for a family-style Thanksgiving, and during the meal, a local pilot flew a banner over the ranch that read "Happy Thanksgiving, Ron and Nancy." Prior to his departure, President Reagan announced to the people:
In this season of Thanksgiving we are grateful for our abundant harvests and the productivity of our industries; for the discoveries of our laboratories; for the researches of our scientists and scholars; for the achievements of our artists, musicians, writers, clergy, teachers, physicians, businessmen, engineers, public servants, farmers, mechanics, artisans, and workers of every sort whose honest toil of mind and body in a free land rewards them and their families and enriches our entire Nation.
Let us thank God for our families, friends, and neighbors, and for the joy of this very festival we celebrate in His name. Let every house of worship in the land and every home and every heart be filled with the spirit of gratitude and praise and love on this Thanksgiving Day.
George H.W. Bush began the tradition of pardoning a turkey at the White House in 1989
Presidents have been pardoning turkeys since Abraham Lincoln gave that first turkey his reprieve, but this brief stay of execution didn't start a domino effect for future presidents. Following presidents only pardoned turkeys on and off until 1989, when George H.W. Bush made the practice a mainstay of the office. On November 17, 1989, he allowed one lucky 50-lb. turkey a life of gobbling its days away in peace and safety.
Bill Clinton spent the holiday at Camp David
The Clintons spent much of Bill's presidency in turmoil, but in 1996, things were only looking up for the first family. A second term was in the bag, and they weren't yet facing down an impeachment. Before heading out to Camp David to have a down-home Thanksgiving meal, he gave a lengthy speech to the American people, in which he stated:
Across the years, we still share an unbroken bond with the men and women who first proclaimed Thanksgiving in our land. Americans today still cherish the fresh air of freedom, in which we can raise our families and worship God as we choose without fear of persecution. We still rejoice in this great land and in the civil and religious liberty it offers to all. And we still---and always---raise our voices in prayer to God, thanking Him in humility for the countless blessings He has bestowed on our Nation and our people. Let us now, this Thanksgiving Day, reawaken ourselves and our neighbors and our communities to the genius of our founders in daring to build the world's first constitutional democracy on the foundation of trust and thanks to God. Out of our right and proper rejoicing on Thanksgiving Day.
President George W. Bush spent his final Thanksgiving in office making phone calls
As cool/stressful as it has to be, there's a part of being president that no one talks about: all the phone calls that you have to make. Imagine getting out of a meeting at the office only to be sent into another meeting, and then another and another. That's basically how W. spent his Thanksgiving in 2007. That year, 43 went out to Camp David in Maryland and had a classic Thanksgiving dinner while making calls to U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan, Iraq, and aboard the USS Eisenhower. Hopefully, by the end of the evening, he felt that his mission was accomplished.
President Obama reached out to the American people
President Obama had a fascinating way of celebrating Thanksgiving. Rather than simply making a speech and calling it a day, he reached out to the American people via social media, often with questions that he seemed to genuinely want answered, like "We've accomplished a lot together over the past three years. This Thanksgiving, what are you most thankful for?" is just one the questions he posed to his followers.
Obama's Thanksgiving presence was genuinely warming. Along with the pardoning of turkeys and these intimate questions, he also posted an annual photo with his family that gave the public a glimpse into their cozy home life.
President Trump loves to pardon turkeys
George H.W. Bush might have cemented the concept of pardoning turkeys, but Trump took to it like a fish to water. Every year, he simply reveled in setting the turkeys free, but in 2019, he managed to tie the annual event into his impeachment inquiry to create a genuinely absurd moment. At the pardoning ceremony in the Rose Garden, he joked that the turkeys "have already received subpoenas to appear in Adam Schiff's basement," and then he compared the turkeys to the mysterious whistleblower from his phone call to the Ukraine, saying:
It seems the Democrats are accusing me of being too soft on turkey. But bread and butter, I should note, that unlike previous witnesses, you and I have actually met.