Why do we eat turkey for Christmas dinner?

It is estimated that between nine and ten million turkeys are purchased in the UK each Christmas. Turkeys have become a staple of the festive season, and it’s hard to imagine a traditional Christmas dinner without one.

In this blog, read on to learn about the unlikely history of the Christmas turkey and find out how it isn’t quite as traditional a Christmas bird as you might think.

This photograph was taken by Eric Guy in c. 1937, depicting turkeys on a farm. A farmer on horseback and a child are behind them.
This photograph was taken by Eric Guy in c. 1937, depicting turkeys on a farm. A farmer on horseback and a child are behind them. ( P DX289 PH1/445)

Are turkeys from Turkey?

Turkeys are not native to the UK, and nor do they originate in Turkey. In fact, the birds we know as turkeys today originate in the Americas. They were among the first animals domesticated by pre-Aztec and Aztec peoples more than 2,000 years ago, who named them huehxolotl and considered them sacred. Turkey meat and eggs formed a rich source of food and the their vibrant plumage was used for decoration as well as arrows. Turkeys were associated with one of the principle deities in the Aztec pantheon, Tezcatlipoca, who was sometimes known to take a turkey form.

It was after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, between 1519 and 1521, that turkeys were first brought from central America to Europe and introduced to European nobles. They were an instant hit, as they were larger than most common birds and exotic on account of their imported status.

While these turkeys were not from Turkey, much confusion was caused by the fact that at around the same time, the helmeted guinea fowl had arrived in England from traders in the Eastern Mediterranean who were then known as ‘Turkey merchants’. In fact, these birds were also not native to Turkey; they were from West Africa. Over time, it seems that these birds, briefly known as ‘the Turkey bird’, became conflated with the turkey from the Americas. In the 1550s, the person credited with bringing ‘turkey’ from the Americas to England, William Strickland, had ‘a turkey-cock in his pride proper‘ added to his coat of arms, and it very clearly resembles the turkeys we know as turkeys today. Indeed, this is thought to be the oldest surviving artistic depiction of a turkey in Europe’s art history.

Confusion over the turkey’s name and its historic origins can be traced throughout world languages. In countries like France, Russia and Poland, the name for the bird translates to ‘from India’ or ‘bird from India’. In Dutch, it’s ‘Kalkoen’ (meaning from the Indian city of Calicut, modern Kozhikode), which also influenced the Danish ‘Kalkun’, Swedish ‘Kalkon’, and Finnish ‘Kalakuna’. Meanwhile, the Malaysian name is ‘Ayam belanda’ (Dutch chicken) and the Portuguese is ‘Peru’. Something that unites all these names is that the turkey is almost always a bird from somewhere else.

A turkey on a church lectern.
The turkey is the symbol of the Strickland family. The lectern, photographed in Boynton Church, Yorkshire, features a turkey and the Strickland family coat of arms, (Image credit: Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK, Wikimedia Commons)

When did turkey join the Christmas menu?

Before the Reformation and the separation of the Church of England from Rome in the reign of King Henry VIII (an event that had major repercussions for our town, Reading, and its royal abbey), England celebrated many Catholic feast days with varying amounts of food and revelry. Christmas was enjoyed like most other feast days and it wasn’t marked by a specific meat taking pride of place on the table. For example, there are records of monks spending money on expensive spices at Christmas for use in their usual meals of pies, fish, and offal. Contemporaneous wealthy households would serve up a trencher: a meaty stew in a hollowed-out loaf of bread. There may have been something special like a boar’s head or a goose, but this was more a display of wealth than a true Christmas dish. In Henry VIII’s palace, a Christmas feast could feature geese, chicken, beef, boars, swans, and peacocks.

Throughout the 16th century, turkey began to appear in Christmas dinners. Tudor poet and farmer Thomas Tusser wrote of how turkeys were becoming a feature of the Christmas dinner table in 1573, showing their growing popularity in the English menu:

Good bread & good drinke, a good fyer in the hall,
brawne pudding & souse & good mustarde withal.
Biefe, mutton, & porke, shred pyes of the best,
pig, veale, goose & capon, & Turkey wel drest.

This popularity resulted from a growth in English turkey rearing throughout the period, especially in eastern England and Norfolk. The land was suitable and it was within a reasonable distance of London. The Norfolk Black is generally considered the oldest turkey breed in the UK and can still be found on certain farms today. Some of these birds were even taken to the Americas, where they were crossed with wild birds to produce most of the dark-feathered commercial varieties that we recognise today. In fact, many of the pilgrims took turkeys with them, unaware that turkeys were actually already native to North America.

Later, in Georgian times, the turkey featured in another extravagant Christmas meal: ‘the Christmas Pye’ or the Turducken. One recipe is found in the influential cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple by Hannah Glasse. It involved putting a pigeon in a partridge, the partridge in a fowl, the fowl in a goose, and then it all in a turkey surrounded by pie crust and meat from rabbits, wood-cock, moor fowl, and any ‘wild-fowl you can get’. This cookbook was popular in England and the Thirteen Colonies of America for over a century after its publication. It was written in plain English so that servants could use it to make delicious, extravagant meals.

Turkey, Christmas, and the Victorians

Many of England’s modern Christmas traditions first appeared during the Victorian age, thanks to the highly fashionable royal family. Prince Albert imported several traditions from Germany while Queen Victoria took advantage of new technologies and resources from the British Empire to set the latest trends. It’s why we send Christmas cards, bring our Christmas trees indoors and cover them with decorations, and, eat a turkey for dinner. It was in 1851 that turkey first took centre stage at the royals’ dinner table, which began a trend we still enjoy today.

As you might imagine, most families in Victorian England could not afford something as extravagant as a turkey and most families ate goose. Dickens portrays this in A Christmas Carol with the feast at the Cratchits’ residence:

“There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last! Yet everyone had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows!”

Later, Scrooge sends the Cratchits the biggest turkey he can find, ensuring they would have plenty and enjoy Christmas in style. We hope he also spared some cheeses for the mices.

Scrooge buys the biggest turkey he can.
An illustration of Scrooge buying a turkey for the Cratchits by Charles Edmund Brock, 1908. (Photo credit: US Library of Congress)

From the Victorians to the modern day

Many of England’s modern Christmas traditions first appeared during the Victorian age, thanks to the highly fashionable royal family. Prince Albert imported several traditions from Germany while Queen Victoria took advantage of new technologies and resources from the British Empire to set the latest trends. It’s why we send Christmas cards, bring our Christmas trees indoors and cover them with decorations, and, eat a turkey for dinner. It was in 1851 that turkey first took centre stage at the royals’ dinner table, which began a trend we still enjoy today.

Indeed, both turkey and geese incurred significant costs for consumers. Before the development and improvement of the railways, most birds sold for consumption in cities had to be walked from farm to town. The birds’ feet would be wrapped in rags or covered in a painless solution of tar that acted as a little shoe to protect their feet. These journeys would have taken days and required accommodation, a team of human companions, and food, which all significantly added to cost.

The financial strain and expectation that came with purchasing a Christmas bird is evidenced around this time through the establishment of organisations known as Goose Clubs. These were set up by pubs, with each member paying a shilling a week for 8 to 10 weeks before Christmas to ensure that they could afford a centerpiece bird at Christmas. These clubs were very unpopular with the Temperance movements of the time, because they took place in pubs, and you normally got a small bottle of gin with your goose. Many poor households also didn’t have ovens to cook their goose. We also see this in A Christmas Carol, when the younger Cratchits head off to the bakers, who has kindly left his oven on for people to cook their Christmas dinners.

As the railway developed and improved, turkey grew in popularity, and it really achieved its yuletide dominance only from the 1950s onwards. Turkey Clubs were introduced (like Goose Clubs, but without the gin) to allow low-income families to purchase turkeys in instalments. At this time, fridge freezers were much more affordable, so families could purchase turkey early and store it until the big day, while affordable ovens meant cooking at home became more and more feasible.

From then onwards, turkey has remained firmly on the Christmas menu, often with changing accompaniments, like pigs in blankets, fancy sprouts, the perfect roast potatoes, a few slices of ham, maybe some cranberry sauce on the side, a bit of gravy… What was I saying again?

We wish you a Merly Christmas!

From all of us at The MERL, thank you for joining us online or in person throughout 2022. It’s been another great year of bringing you tales of England’s rural past.

For more festive reads, take a look at some of other Christmas blogs below. Or, if you’d be interested in supporting our work, consider leaving a donation.

Why not sign up to our newsletter?

Use the form below to select the newsletters you would like to receive!





Share This Post :

2 thoughts on “Why do we eat turkey for Christmas dinner?”

  1. In respect of your very interesting article on turkeys you may wish to consider inserting a reference to my own article on the subject see below. Very best wishes for 2023
    John Martin
    Visiting Professor of Agrarian History MERL

    ‘The Commercialisation of British Turkey Production’, Rural History, 20, 2 (2009).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Widget not in any sidebars