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The Complete History of The Christmas Turkey

Updated October 27, 2021
The Complete History of The Christmas Turkey

Today, many Americans can’t imagine a holiday family meal without a Christmas turkey.

That’s no wonder, as turkeys are native to America and inhabited the land even before the Maya period.

Surprisingly, despite how widespread turkeys are in America, the tradition of consuming these birds for Christmas is much younger than the customs of decorating Christmas trees or popping Christmas crackers.

In fact, the British came up with the idea first. Like many English traditions, this one was influenced mainly by royalty, specifically King Henry VIII. But the custom was truly popularized in the UK only in the Victorian Era.

The main reason for such slow spread of the tradition was transportation difficulty and consequently high price. Thankfully, today, nearly every American can afford to serve turkey and stuffing on their Christmas table.

But while we view turkeys mainly as food, our ancestors used to respect these birds a lot more.

For example, Maya iconography shows that turkeys were seen as godlike creatures, and numerous famous artists have portrayed wild turkeys in their natural habitat simply due to the fascinating look of these creatures.

Christmas Turkey in Britain

The first mention of turkeys in Britain dates to the 16th century. Before these birds were brought to Britain from Spain in 1526 by a sailor named William Strickland, people used to eat boars, geese, and even peacocks.

British farmers didn’t usually eat beef or chicken because they needed them to get milk and eggs that were too expensive at that time.

In other words, they were more valuable alive than dead. Turkeys, on the other hand, weren’t particularly useful livestock.

However, farmers weren’t the first to eat turkeys for Christmas. The father of the tradition is King Henry VIII of England.

Although British royalty always influenced local trends, turkeys on Christmas tables didn’t become a universally observed tradition until a few centuries later.

Perhaps, the reason for this was low availability. Now, the shelves of British grocery stores are full of turkeys.

Still, the demand for the bird before Christmas is so high that 25% of locals prefer to buy their turkeys about a month in advance.

By the 1720s, Norfolk County was farming over 250,000 turkeys annually. Before trains were invented in 1804, turkeys had to be walked from farms to markets. After all, carriages weren’t large enough to fit dozens of birds.

The process used to take weeks for farmers who lived in remote locations, and bird walkers had to sleep on the sides of the road.

In addition, farmers dipped bird feet in tar to prevent them from getting sore. But, of course, birds that required so much work to be brought to market used to cost a fortune and were only eaten by rich people.

Apart from locally grown birds, wealthy British people used to purchase turkeys brought in from the Netherlands and Spain that were relatively near to Norfolk by sea.

The tradition of eating turkey for Christmas became more popular in the Victorian Era, particularly in the 1840s. The reason for this, however, wasn’t Queen Victoria’s influence but rather Charles Dickens’.

In “A Christmas Carol,” published in 1843, Dickens describes how the Cratchit family used to eat goose for Christmas.

But at the end of the poem, Ebenezer Scrooge gave them turkey, saying it was larger. Based on historical evidence, Charles Dicken’s family also had turkey for that Christmas.

Queen Victoria followed Dicken’s example only in 1851; furthermore, she didn’t give up on more traditional at that time goose and beef.

“Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management,” published in 1861, states that turkey is the perfect Christmas meal for the middle classes. But the bird wasn’t yet available to the poor.

Only after World War II, when farming developed and food became more affordable, Christmas turkey became a widely accepted holiday dinner standard.

Christmas Turkey in the US

Turkeys are native to America, and Spaniards have tamed the first wild turkeys brought to Europe in Mexico.

The first records of wild turkeys in America dated to 1525, but historians believe they have resided on the land since about 25 AD.

Turkey domestication in America and Europe happened simultaneously, and pilgrims have brought domesticated turkeys back from Europe to the New World in the 1620 Mayflower voyage.

Colonists were surprised that Native Americans were already familiar with the bird that remained a part of national fauna all along.

In the early years of the US, Benjamin Franklin was a member of a committee dedicated to appointing national symbols.

A national bird was never on the list, but Franklin, in his letter to his daughter in 1784, has stated that turkeys are a more respectable bird than an eagle and thus should be considered the true Native Bird of America.

After President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, the demand for these birds surged.

However, they weren’t a part of traditional Christmas dinner just yet. And yet, turkeys have nearly become extinct during the 19th century in America.

The reason for this was not solely high demand but also deforestation. As a result, the last wild turkey in Massachusetts was killed in the 1820s.

Thankfully, after a relocation program dedicated to preserving the birds in the 20th century, their population started growing again.

During the 20th century, Americans started eating turkey also for Christmas. But it wasn’t a single traditional dish for holiday dinner.

Instead, many people preferred lamb, beef, or chicken to turkey, and some mixed and matched dishes. To this day, turkey is a common but not the only traditional Christmas dish in the US.

Why Is Turkey Called Turkey?

Following a common misconception, many people think that turkeys have acquired their name because their country of origin is Turkey. This is far from the truth, as turkeys are native to North America.

The most popular version of turkey name origin states that first American settlers mistakenly thought the bird was a large guinea fowl. However, these are African birds that were relatively common in Europe at that time.

Like many other exotic foods, animals, and plants, Guinea fowl were imported to Europe through Turkey.

For this reason, the birds were sometimes called “Turkey coqs” or “Turkie hennes,” both translating as “birds from Turkey.” Consequently, the newly discovered bird got the same name.

But turkeys aren’t called by the name of Turkey in all countries.

For instance, in Russian, turkeys are called “indejka,” and in French, “dinde,” which translates as “birds from India.” Interestingly, Turkish people also call turkeys “hindi,” translating simply as “India.”

In these regions, turkeys are associated with India because of Christopher Columbus, who found America and mistaken it for India. As the birds originate in North America, the connection is rather obvious.

In 1758, turkeys received an even more ridiculous name. The official Latin name for turkey now was “Meleagris gallopavo,” which translates as “guinea fowl chicken peacock.” However, turkeys aren’t related to any of these birds.

Perhaps, Portuguese “peru” is the only sensible name for turkeys, as Peru is, in fact, located in South America.

Cultural Influence

As turkeys have become an inseparable part of traditional Christmas dinner in the US and England, they have earned numerous cultural mentions.

These birds were commonly depicted on British holiday cards from the Victorian Era. They are also a part of Charles Dicken’s famous book “A Christmas Carol,” published in 1843.

English painter Robert Braithwaite Martineau, who lived in the same period as Charles Dickens, has portrayed Christmas turkey in his painting “The Christmas Hamper.”

In the painting, a family’s father brings live turkey from a market on Christmas Eve, and the entire family excitedly watches the bird being taken out of the hamper.

However, Christmas turkeys only started to appear in American media in the 20th century. Therefore, in the US, these birds are mainly mentioned in the Thanksgiving context.

For instance, the Muppet show Sesame Street introduced turkey as a character in the 1990s and has dedicated multiple Thanksgiving special episodes to it.

Looking at turkeys in the culture outside of the Christmas context, we can find endless paintings of the birds dating to the 18th and 19th centuries.

These birds were depicted by French artist Claude Monet, American naturalist John James Audubon, and Wilhelm Goebel.

Historians have concluded turkey’s ancient origin mainly based on paintings discovered while researching Maya iconography. The civilization used to praise these birds, and they often became a part of religious rites.

Christmas Turkey Traditions

The tradition of eating turkey for Christmas is mainly observed in the US and UK, though some families in Western Europe also prefer it to chicken. However, Christmas turkeys aren’t common in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.

Even Queen Elisabeth II is a dedicated admirer of Christmas turkey. A former royal chef Darren McGrady once said:

“It was the same meal every year. They’re actually boring when it comes to festivities! They didn’t do hams or anything, just traditional turkeys. We did three turkeys for the Queen and her family in the royal dining room, one for the children’s nursery, and then more for the 100 or so staff, so everyone had a Christmas lunch.”

Typically, turkey is stuffed with a mix of herbs, breadcrumbs, nuts, onion, celery, and sometimes, eggs. It’s then served on a large dish as a table centerpiece.

Image credit: Pexels

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