For most British households, Christmas still means roast turkey and all the trimmings. The turkey remains hugely popular in this country more than 10 million are eaten at Christmas every year. But why do we eat turkey in particular? Is there a specific reason? And how long have we been cooking them for our Christmas meal? Find out right here. When did we first start eating turkeys at Christmas? Turkeys were first brought into Britain in the 1520s. At that time, people would eat boar s head, goose or even peacock at Christmas; it has been claimed that Henry VIII was the first person in Britain to eat turkey for his Christmas meal. By 1573, farmer Thomas Tusser noted that turkeys had started being served at English Christmas dinners, but that goose and capon – a castrated rooster – remained the roast of choice at the festive season for some considerable time. In 1615 turkey appears as a meat used in English households in Gervase Markham s book The English Housewife. The London Poulters Guild records note that in the 1680s they began to give the company clerk a turkey as a Christmas gift. But weren t turkeys were the main Christmas food in Victorian times? Even during Queen Victoria s reign, turkey was not the most popular Christmas roast as it remained more expensive than the alternatives. In northern England, roast beef was the traditional choice while in the south, goose was still favoured though poorer families often made do with rabbit.
Eating turkey at Christmas was popularised further by the likes of Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, Scrooge sends Bob Cratchit a huge turkey on Christmas Day to replace his goose and then again by King Edward VII, who chose them for his festive feast. So when did turkey become our main choice of Christmas dinner? Research shows that today, you only need to work for 1. 7 hours to afford one, but as recently as the 1930s, a turkey would cost the average person a week s wages to buy. It wasn t until after World War II that turkey overtook goose as the most popular Christmas roast partly due to the widespread adoption of the fridge in family homes. Strangely, it s only really here and in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that turkey is the main festive meal of choice; while it is sometimes eaten in plenty of other countries, including many in south and central America, it is very rarely eaten at Christmas across the rest of Europe.
Britons lamenting their Christmas turkey вВ or, indeed, the Christmas turkey of another вВ for being too dry and bland is a regular occurrence each year. So the sheer scale with which the birds are consumed every Christmas is somewhat surprising. We buy around ten million turkeys each festive period, buttering and basting them until their skin is crisp and golden, their bones ready for soup. that suggest great swathes of diners (48 per cent, to be precise) would opt instead for some other meat, be it beef or duck or pork, turkeyВ is the unquestionable centrepiece.
В The majority of UK households sit down to the fowl on December 25 (76 per cent). Even families who splash out on goose may too have a turkey crown on the table. And ham, studded with cloves and dripping in sweetness, is a mere accompaniment. Why turkey? The democratisation of the turkey is a fairly recent occurrence: it wasn t until the 1950s that they became widely available and not considered a luxury. But the birds go back a way further. Turkeys were first brought to Britain in the 1520s (from Mexico, via Levantine traders, hence the name turkey ), and first listed as. The earliest written record of turkeys is attributed to Archbishop Thomas Cramner in 1541, food historian Sam Bilton tells В He wanted to curb gluttony in the higher clergy by only allowing one bird to be served per dish (due to their size these вgreater fowlsв were able to provide more meat therefore negating the need to have more than one). Before then, for the rich, a boar s head might have featured. Or a pheasant. Maybe even a swan or peacock. For a king? All of them, probably. September 1965: A family sit round a table watching father carve a turkey. (Photo by L. J. Willinger/Keystone/Getty Images) The popular belief is that King Henry VIII was the first to sit down and tuck into turkey on Christmas Day.
By 1573, farmer Thomas Tusser noted that the birds had started being dished up as Yuletide fare across the land, though goose and capon (a castrated rooster) were still the primary choice. Food historian Angela Clutton tells me: Turkeys may have been part of the festive feasting for Tudor royals and the wealthy at that time, most likely in one of the meat-tastic pies. But turkey would not have commonly been the centrepiece roast in the way we think of it now. Skip to the early 1600s and the meat is no longer consigned to Christmas, nor is it quite so exclusive. In 1615, turkey has a role in Gervase Markham s В The English Housewife, andВ The London Poultersв Guild show that by the end of the century company clerks were given them as a Christmas present. Two centuries on, turkeys were still quite exclusive. During Queen Victoria s reign, the birds were more expensive than alternatives. In the North of England, most people with money to spare would buy a hefty hunk of beef; in the South, goose was favoured. Poorer families would make do with rabbit But it is during the Victorian era that turkeys began to be popularised. In Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, Scrooge sends Bob Cratchit a massive turkey to replace his goose.
Turkey really became more popular at Christmas through the Victorian era, Clutton tells. Turkey was still expensive for most people, but were (are) able to serve more people than a goose can, so became popular for larger families or for Christmas entertaining. December 1923: Christmas turkeys, hanging outside a poulterers in Watling Street, London. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images) Clutton adds that transportation made a difference, too. Mrs Beeton wrote about turkeys being вdrivenв to London from Norfolk for the Christmas trade:В Quite a way, so theyвd have had little leather вbootsв on their feet, Clutton says. Soon after, with the arrival of the railways, turkey really took off. A combination of literary might, increased production and refrigeration made lower budget eating possible. Crucially, turkeys became accessible, and therefore much cheaper. Still, in the 1930s, our beloved turkey would ve cost most of us a week s wages. В Today? Most people only need to work about two hours, and turkey appears a now unshakable tradition. Come on, even if you re a poultry saboteur, you ve probably at some point grabbed a Pret turkey feast on the train down to your in-laws. A quick fix to : brine it the day before, take the breast out (still on the verge of blushing pink) before the legs (it s a leg-heavy bird), baste properly with butter, and cover with tin foil. В