A golden roast turkey is the quintessential centrepiece of a traditional Christmas dinner in the UK, but where does this tradition come from, and what is the significance of this staple dish?
Before 1526, which when turkeys were first brought to this country from the Americas, the main dish on Christmas Day might have been a boar’s head or a whole peacock. Although Henry VIII began the tradition of eating a roast turkey at Christmas, a roast goose was also a common choice up until as recently as the 1950s. Both birds have the advantage of being relatively easy to rear alongside normal livestock and presented less of a sacrifice to an ordinary family than losing a cow, whose milk was so valuable, or a whole sheep. A goose or turkey was just the right size for a family feast.
Turkey becomes fashionable
Turkeys became an increasingly fashionable choice in the mid-1850s. In Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge gives the Crachit family a turkey as a sign of his newly found generosity of spirit. Queen Victoria favoured roast turkey for Christmas, and recipes for the now traditional roast with all the trimmings appeared in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
Our appetite for turkey now
An estimated 10 million turkeys are sold at Christmas in the UK, and three quarters of all families sit down to a turkey dinner on Christmas Day. For most of us, a roast turkey symbolises Christmas just as much as a Christmas tree with presents underneath and a holly wreath on the door.