Christmas is full of old traditions, like dining on Christmas turkey on 25th, sending out Christmas cards, and hanging tinsel around the house.
But why do we cook Christmas turkey and how did it originate?
Here are the facts about Christmas turkey!
Turkeys have been eaten in the Americas for past many years – as this is the place turkeys come from. So how did a bird from the Americas come to be the essential Christmas meal for many international locations around the world?
Turkeys first arrived in Europe, to Spain in 1519; and the first turkey was once delivered to the UK in 1526 via a sailor referred to as William Strickland. In 1550 he was once given a coat of palms presenting a turkey on it!
It’s thought that the first British King to consume a turkey was King Henry VIII.
No one is pretty sure why turkeys are referred to as turkeys! There are two primary theories (and each or a mixture of them may want to be correct!).
One theory suggests that the first settlers in the Americas thought that turkeys were a type of large guinea fowl (a bird from Africa which they would have been used to eating in Europe). Guinea fowl were imported in Europe by Turkish traders in Constantinople (now called Istanbul). Back then anything ‘exotic’ often had the word ‘Turkish’ or ‘Turkey’ put in front of it because the items often came through/via the country of Turkey. Guinea fowls were often called ‘Turkey coqs’ or ‘Turkie Hennes’ (both meaning ‘Turkish/Turkey birds’), which became shortened to ‘Turkeys’ and so they gave the same name to the new bird they saw in the Americas!
Another theory is that, although turkeys originally came to Europe into Spain, they were mainly imported into Europe via the Turkish traders in Constantinople. So, they were known as ‘Turkey coqs’. And again, over time, they also just became known as ‘Turkeys’.
But in some countries, turkeys aren’t called turkeys. In French they’re called ‘dinde’ (meaning ‘from India’), in Russian ‘Indjushka’ and Polish ‘Inyczka’ (both meaning ‘bird of India’), in Arabic they’re called ‘diiq Hindi’ (which means ‘Indian rooster’), and in Turkish just ‘Hindi’ (‘India’)! The name was connected with India because Christopher Columbus was looking for India when he found the Americas and so an ‘Indian’ name was connected with the bird from the Americas.
In 1758 Turkeys were given an ‘official’ Latin name ‘Meleagris gallopavo’. But that name is a mixture of Latin and Greek and means ‘guinea-fowl chicken-peacock’, which is VERY wrong as turkeys are not guinea-fowl chickens or peacocks!
In Portuguese, a turkey is called a ‘peru’ – named after the country of Peru – which is in the Americas. This might be the most sensible name for turkeys!
By 1720 about 250,000 turkeys were being farmed every year in Norfolk (on the east coast of England in the UK).
As well as coming via Turkey/Constantinople, turkeys also came into the UK from The Netherlands (which is quite near Norfolk by sea) via Spanish and Portuguese traders who had strong historical with The Netherlands/Holland.
Before turkeys could travel by train, they (and geese) had to be walked from the farms to the markets.
This could take weeks, with the farmers/bird walkers and the birds having to camp each night at the side of roads! The feet of the birds were often dipped in tar to act like ‘feet tires’ to stop them from getting sore! In the UK they would walk from Norfolk down to London and be only eaten by the rich at this time.
Turkeys became ‘fashionable’ to eat for Christmas in the UK in the 1840s and 1850s.
In ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens, which was published in 1843, the Cratchit family first had a goose, but at the end of the book, Ebenezer Scrooge gives them a turkey because it was bigger and more ‘important. Dickens’s family are also recorded having a turkey for Christmas in 1843!
Queen Victoria first had a Turkey at Christmas in 1851 (along with the more traditional goose and beef). In the 1861 book “Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management”, turkey was praised as the Christmas meal for the developing ‘middle classes and the book even protected directions on how to carve them ‘correctly’.
The growing train network in the UK closer to the end of the 1800s intended those turkeys could be moved much more shortly around the country.
But it wasn’t till after WWII, when farming grew to be extra environment friendly and so meals cheaper, that turkey grew to become the ‘traditional’ Christmas turkey meal in the UK, rather than beef or goose.
Most commercially grown turkeys are now the ‘White Holland’ variety which used to be the first breed in the Netherlands/Holland.