Why Do We Eat Turkey at Christmas?

The Origin of the Christmas Turkey Tradition

The tradition of consuming turkey during Christmas is primarily a cultural phenomenon, mainly observed in the United Kingdom, United States, and some other Western countries.

This custom didn’t always involve turkeys, though. Historically, goose, peacock, and even boar were the centrepieces of Christmas meals.

The turkey’s journey to the Christmas dinner table began in the 16th century when it was brought from the Americas to Europe by explorers and traders.

Over time, it started to become a popular choice for Christmas meals among the upper classes in Britain, and it was during the Victorian era in the 19th century that this tradition began to become more widespread.

illustration of Scrooge buying a prize Christmas turkey for the Cratchits

The Influence of the Victorian Era

In 1843, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was published. In this much-loved novel, the impoverished Cratchit family’s Christmas meal was a goose, but Scrooge, after his transformation, sends them a massive turkey.

The book, being extremely popular and influential, reinforced the idea of turkey as the ideal Christmas dinner in the collective consciousness of Victorian England.

Also, around this time, the increased availability and affordability of turkeys contributed to its burgeoning popularity. Previously, turkeys were luxury items, affordable only to the well-off.

However, with the advent of rail networks, farmers could now transport their turkeys to markets in large cities, significantly reducing the cost and making it more available to middle-class families.

The Spread to the New World

The tradition of Christmas turkey also became popular in America, but for different reasons.

Though turkey is native to North America, the tradition of having it for Christmas is relatively recent. The Thanksgiving turkey is a more established tradition, linked to the mythologized ‘first Thanksgiving’ between Pilgrims and Native Americans in the early 17th century.

It’s likely that the Christmas turkey tradition in America grew out of the popularity of the Thanksgiving turkey, combined with the influence of the British tradition.

The large size of the turkey, making it ideal for feeding a family or a gathering, and its relative affordability compared to other large roasting birds, made it a popular choice for celebratory meals.

Roast Turkey

The Symbolism of the Christmas Turkey

Beyond practicality and historical influences, the Christmas turkey holds symbolic value. It signifies abundance and prosperity.

The image of a golden-brown, perfectly roasted turkey at the centre of the dinner table surrounded by a plethora of side dishes creates a picture of plenty, of celebration, and the communal sharing of a special meal.

The Christmas Turkey Tradition Evolves

In contemporary times, while turkey remains the traditional centrepiece for many Christmas dinners, there’s increasing diversification in what constitutes a ‘typical’ Christmas dinner. Some families opt for other meats, such as ham or roast beef, while vegetarian and vegan alternatives are becoming more common.

Despite these changes, the tradition of the Christmas turkey remains a significant part of holiday celebrations for many families, a testament to the enduring influence of historical practices and cultural symbolism.

Read more about Christmas Traditions and Customs