Thanksgiving: A day of food, family, and football.

Or fear, if you're a turkey.

Each year, though, one lucky bird beats the odds — and meets the president in the process. But the White House pardoning ceremony is — officially, at least — a pretty recent tradition.

Courage the turkey waits — with members of the Secret Service — to be pardoned at the White House in 2009. | (CC BY: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President George H.W. Bush offered the first formal fowl pardon in 1989. He casually announced the bird had "been granted a presidential pardon as of right now" and then sent the turkey to Frying Pan Park (seriously) in Herndon, Va., which is still the retirement home of choice for the birds.

The gesture caught on, and presidents have since held a pardoning ceremony each year for one bird (while a backup waits in the wings in case of stage fright).

But informally, the tradition may be even older. Abraham Lincoln's son Tad is rumored to have begged his father to allow a turkey meant for Christmas dinner to live. John F. Kennedy, meanwhile, opted out of dressing the White House bird in 1963, saying, "We'll just let this one grow." And Richard Nixon instituted the tradition of sending the birds to a petting zoo after the photo ops were finished.

Most earlier presidents weren't quite so forgiving, though, a fact President Obama mentioned during his 2009 pardon: "Thanks to the intervention of Malia and Sasha — because I was ready to eat this sucker — Courage will also be spared this terrible and delicious fate," he said. "I'm told Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson actually ate their turkeys."

"You can't fault them for that," Obama added. "That's a good-looking bird."

Below, a selection of presidents giving their turkeys a pass — and one image of Ike plotting the best glaze for his bird.

President Bush keeps a tight hold on Biscuits in 2004. | (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

President Clinton laughs while looking at Carl, a 35-pound turkey wearing a White House visitors pass, in 1996. | (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

President Nixon eyes the Thanksgiving turkey in 1969. | (Wally McNamee/CORBIS)

President Kennedy admires a 55-pound turkey, which wears a sign reading, "Good Eating, Mr. President!" in 1963. The turkey was intended for Thanksgiving dinner; however, JFK granted it freedom. | (Bettmann/CORBIS)

President Eisenhower seems highly pleased with the 43-pound Kentucky Colonel turkey from the blue-grass state, presented by Peary Browning (right), president of the National Turkey Federation. The Thanksgiving bird was selected from a flock of 100,000 at Browning's farm and presumably served for the White House meal. | (Bettmann/CORBIS)