Since 1989, when President George H. W. Bush first formally instituted the practice, U.S. presidents have pardoned a turkey shortly before Thanksgiving each year.

Although the turkeys offer no offense, their presidential pardoning invites the question: What is the significance of such a public rite of forgiveness?

As a researcher of the history of race and religion, I have long been interested in the ideas and ceremonies that make forgiveness possible. The presidential turkey pardon draws on the long traditions of forgiveness in the world’s religions. A very public act of pardoning, as in this case, reminds us about the important role rituals themselves play in society.