Why do we eat turkey at Christmas? The long-standing tradition explained

As Christmas rolls around each year, many families will be wondering what the history is behind this festive tradition

Updated on 05 October 2021 • Written By

Why do we eat turkey at Christmas? The long-standing tradition explained

Turkey is one of the most iconic features of a Christmas dinner. For many families, it simply isn’t a Christmas dinner without a turkey. However, most people don’t know where this tradition started, or why it is that turkeys - rather than goose, chicken or beef - are the most popular option on Christmas Day.

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Although turkeys aren’t native to the UK, they have been eaten in Britain for hundreds of years. There is documentation of turkeys being imported into the UK in the early 16th century, and Henry VIII was apparently the first British monarch to enjoy turkey on Christmas day. However, it took over 400 years for the turkey to go from a specialty, luxury item to the most popular festive centrepiece across the UK.

Turkey’s modern popularity is often a source of stress. Although a huge roast turkey is something of a showstopper, they are infamously difficult to cook. Turkeys’ huge size - in part natural, and in part due to centuries of careful breeding - makes them difficult to cook through without drying out. Many families choose to purchase a turkey crown, which is smaller and easier to cook more evenly than a full turkey. However, turkey crowns are even more expensive than turkeys. It speaks to the popularity of turkey in Britain that shoppers are willing to spend, per kilogram, twice the amount that they would on a whole turkey on a turkey crown in order to make sure that they still have some form of turkey on their Christmas table.

Where do turkeys come from?

Turkeys, it may not surprise you to hear, are not native to the UK. They arrived in the UK in the early sixteenth century, around 1524 according to the Chronicle of the Kings of England. British merchants bought them from Spanish conquistadors who brought the birds back from Mexico, where they had been domesticated from the wild species over many years by indigenous Mexicans. The Norfolk Black turkey breed is thought to be directly descended from this early turkey breed. The Norfolk Black was bred in the UK for over 200 years, before eventually being transported back to the Americas with European colonists. However, the breed has gradually declined in popularity, and is now relatively rare in both the UK and the USA. Although in the 16th century turkey was very expensive, as turkey farms spread across the UK eating turkey at Christmas took off in popularity. But, it wasn’t until the 19th century that turkey became the standard Christmas dinner fare for families around the UK.

Close up image of a large black turkey in a field

What did we eat before turkey on Christmas day?

For much of British history, food eaten at Christmas was very similar to food eaten at other feasts and celebrations. Medieval monks would celebrate by spending money on rare and expensive spices, to add to their pies, fish and offal. Before the arrival of turkey, boar was a particularly popular option. Stuffed boar’s heads were served as a Christmas centrepiece in England from the medieval period right up until Tudor times. In the medieval period, pottage - a thick stew - would be served in a trencher in wealthy households at special occasions, including Christmas. A trencher was a hollowed out loaf of stale bread which would be filled with pottage or other meaty stews.

After the turkey was introduced to the UK it grew in popularity as a Christmas meat. By the Georgian era turkey was almost as popular as goose, and would be eaten at Christmas quite frequently. However, it wasn’t until the Victorian era when turkey finally began to become the most eaten meat at Christmas. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol famously features Scrooge asking a poor homeless child to help him buy Bob Cratchit ‘the prize turkey’ hanging in the window of the butcher’s. Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery from 1883 notes that ‘The turkey is highly esteemed and usually commands a high price, especially at Christmas, when most extravagant prices are often demanded and obtained for large, well-fed birds.’ Turkeys were also used as part of ‘Christmas Pie’, an intricate dish first popularised in the Georgian era. This extravagant dish involved stuffing a pigeon inside a chicken, which was then stuffed inside a turkey, which was then stuffed inside a goose. This ‘turducken’ style pie remained popular well into the Victorian era.

Image of wine being poured into a class on a Christmas table set with pomegranates and candles.

How many people actually eat turkey on Christmas day in the UK?

Although turkey is seen as synonymous with Christmas, it is actually less common in the UK than you might expect. A recent YouGov poll found that only half of respondents typically ate turkey on Christmas day - that’s fewer than the number who ate sprouts. Turkey was most popular in the midlands and Wales, and least popular in London. Beef was the second most popular option, especially in the north of England and Scotland. However, it was a far second, with only 10% of respondents on average opting for beef. Vegetarian alternatives are also popular on Christmas day. On average, 8% of Brits have a vegetarian Christmas dinner. This number jumps to 17% among 18-24 year olds. The increasing popularity of vegetarian Christmas dinners can be seen in the number of meat free turkey options now available in shops around the UK in the run up to Christmas.

Don’t fancy trying to roast a turkey at home? Check out our list of the best spots for Christmas dinner around London.