Why do we eat turkey at Christmas? Britain's yuletide roast explained

Christmas time will soon be upon us, and most of us will have turkey on the big day. But why are we so crazy about the big bird at yuletide in the UK?

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.

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