Why the Christmas Turkey?

Nowadays, the Christmas turkey seems the inevitable holiday meal — but that hasn’t always been true.

Ever given any thought as to why such a humble thing as the Christmas turkey has become a nearly universal tradition? And no, I’m not talking about the musical album of the same name by the Arrogant Worms, which is hilarious and has its place, but alas, dates only from 1997.

No, I mean the actual bird. In all the old stories and songs (which are terribly outdated, also alas), the Christmas entrée is usually a goose, which seems highly exotic to us today. Who has geese for Christmas dinner? Why, the turkey is as much a modern Christmas tradition as mistletoe and conifers.

The Old Standby

Many of our Christmas holiday traditions derive from Merrye Olde Englande, or at least the 19th-century version thereof. Back then and there, it was the turkey that was the exotic bird. Most people ate goose — if they could afford meat at all — because it was cheap.

Turkey, on the other hand, was the equivalent of dining on veal or lobster. Remember the end of A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge has the prize turkey in the butcher’s window sent to the Cratchit home for Christmas dinner? There it was, Christmas morning, and no one had bought it yet.

In 1843, when Dickens published the story, turkey was very much a rich man’s meal. Turkeys are native to the New World, and even 200+ years after colonization, were rare and highly sought-after in the Old. Think really big caviar, at least pricewise.

From Scarce to Commonplace

Scarcity often drives demand and cost. The colonists back in the Americas were probably eating turkey fairly often, but Europeans rarely saw them… until someone finally established turkey farms in Britain and elsewhere.

Somehow, turkey retained its cachet as a luxury item, even after becoming commonplace. Maybe that’s just because it’s tasty, or maybe people got so sick of goose they managed to pass the antipathy down in their genes. Flash forward 150 years, and more than 85% of Brits eat turkey for Christmas dinner.

Many other countries similarly love their turkeys for Christmas dinner (yes, even Turkey), and of course it remains trés popular in its ancestral homeland.

Our Big Contribution

When you think about it, food has probably been the biggest American contribution to Christmas. Not only do we have turkey, there’s cranberries (though Europeans did have a version of those), sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, and corn.

Then there’s hot chocolate, pumpkin pie and pecan pie…wow! So oddly enough, we’ve basically taken over Christmas dinner in many parts of the world, right on through to dessert. And as they say, the quickest way to a person’s heart is through their stomach. Christmas turkey is only the start!