Turkey remains a very popular presence on English tables at Christmas time. More than 10 million are eaten at Christmas every year.
The origin of this can be traced back to the 16th century. The first turkeys are believed to have been brought into Britain in the 1520s by a Yorkshireman named William Strickland. Up until then 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.
William Strickland was very proud of his acquisitions, which is reflected on his family coat of arms showing a large turkey as part of the family crest. The official record of his crest in the archives of the College of Arms in the City of London is said to be the oldest surviving European drawing of a turkey.
From then on, most turkeys were imported on ships into UK from America via the eastern Mediterranean, many of them arriving on Turkish merchant ships. The assumption that these impressively large birds came from an area around Turkey could be the explanation of their name.
In 1615 turkey appears as a meat used in English households in Gervase Markham’s book The English Housewife. The British Library describes the book as a best seller. Although very little of its author’s private life was published, we know that Gervase Markham was buried in St Giles Cripplegate, the parish church in the heart of the Barbican in the City of London.
Also in the City of London, the records of The Worshipful Company of Poulters note that towards the end of the 1600s they began to give the company clerks a turkey as a Christmas gift.
During Queen Victoria’s reign, turkey was present in Christmas roast although it wasn’t the most popular as it was more expensive than the alternatives. In northern England, roast beef was the traditional choice, while in the south goose was still favoured, even though poorer families often had rabbit instead.
The popularisation of turkey at Christmas happened after its appearance in literature. It featured in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), when Scrooge sends Bob Cratchit a huge turkey on Christmas Day to replace his goose.
Although it wasn’t good news for the turkey population, after World War II turkey overtook goose as the most popular Christmas roast, partly due to the widespread adoption of the fridge in family homes. Turkey remains the main festive meat of choice in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, although this is not reflected in many other countries in Europe.