The First Mentions Of Turkey At Christmas Time
There is a distinction between turkey as a Christmas Food and turkey as a Christmas Day Dinner. And this is an important difference to understand. A whole turkey for Christmas dinner was beyond the reach of most of Britain’s population for hundreds of years, but it was not out of their reach as a Christmas food.
One of the very first written mentions of turkeys, soon after their introduction to Tudor Britain, connects them very firmly to Christmas. Thomas Tusser, in his ‘Five hundred points of Good Husbandry’ (published in 1573) tells us that Turkey was already a food of the Christmas period.
Christmas Husbandly Fare
Good husband and huswife now chiefly be glad,
Things handsome to have, as they ought to be had.
They both do provide, against Christmas do come,
To welcome good neighbour, good cheer to have some.
Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall,
Brawn, pudding, and souse, and good mustard withal.
Beef, mutton, and pork, shred pies of the best,
Pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well drest,
Cheese, apples, and nuts, jolly Carols to hear,
As then in the country, is counted good cheer.
What cost to good husband is any of this?
Good household provision only it is:
Of other the like, I do leave out a many,
That costeth the husbandman never a penny.
Thomas Tusser 1573
The above rhyme tells us that the turkey was part of what was considered ‘good household provision’ at Christmas, (for small holders and farmers in the country) and Thomas Tusser also tells us in a different part of his work, ‘At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor’, and this is how many people were able to eat turkey at Christmas. Until the industrial revolution, and the growth of cities, rural communities often ate and celebrated together on feast days. Much of the food was brought by small holders and tenants to be shared at communal gatherings, fates, feasts, fares and other seasonal events such as harvesting. While also, at certain times of the year, the Lord of the Manor, on important feast days, provided much of the food from his own stocks at a country banquet; as an act of both charity and benevolence to his tenants.*
It was then entirely appropriate for fatted turkeys, grown to maturity in their natural life-cycle, to be brought to feasts around Christmas time and shared amongst everybody in the community.
Note: *Although sadly this was not the case with all communities and homes, as Thomas Tusser says about Christmas feasting, ‘Where one hath a dinner, a hundred shall fast.’ Life was hard for the Tudor poor, and important feast days, like Christmas, were looked forward to for many months as a very special occasion, where for a short time life was a little better.
The Victorians And Turkey At Christmas
The Victorians, more than anyone else, started to popularise the notion of Christmas and turkey being synonymous with each other.
Although it is the Roast Goose which takes up much of the famous scene in the Cratchit’s Christmas diner in Charles Dickens’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, (first published in 1843) the turkey is also mentioned, being described near the end of the short story as a much more prized and well regarded bird, an expensive luxury with a definite higher status at Christmas.
Note: The popularity of ‘A Christmas Carol’ was an instant hit, a phenomenon, in terms of sales (both in the UK and the US) and it quickly became a must read at Christmas. Many of our modern notions of a ‘perfect’ Christmas, something to nostalgically aim for, include a Victorian style meal, surrounded by family, in a highly decorated room. It is as if Charles Dickens is the only father of Christmas, and any festive traditions before 1840 do not exist in our understanding of what Christmas celebrations should be.
In regards to expense: Mrs. Beeton, in her cook-book, (in first editions and in some subsequent re-prints) gives the price of a turkey to roast in 1861 as between 10s and 12s, but notably she forewarns her readers with the pre-existing fact that the price of a turkey is likely to rise around Christmas. She does not say this for any other type of meat or poultry – economically, and therefore socially, the Christmas period and turkey were already intrinsically linked with each other.
Looking the Cratchit Christmas dinner (a struggling working class Victorian family, with a rare treat) the memorable scene can tell us the importance of roast goose to Christmas dinners of the poor, “There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration” [emphasis mine].
However, what also is remembered from Dickens’ classic short story is the scene near the end when Scrooge wants to buy the poulter’s Turkey hanging in the window, (to give to the Cratchit’s as his redemption gift). This is the Prize Turkey, and in Scrooge’s words, “’Not the little prize turkey: the big one’, ‘What, the one as big as me?’ returned the boy.’”
This tells us everything we want to know. Roast goose was cheap. Roast turkey was expensive, something to gawp at in the shop windows. And it had been this way for hundreds of years.
Yet ironically turkey gained in popularity with the new industrial middle classes (thanks in part to Dickens) because it was expensive, and therefore considered exclusive – It had become a status symbol. A trend helped by the knowledge reported on in the papers of the day that both Queen Victoria and Edward VII served it at Christmas.
Yet this does not mean that a whole roast turkey was commonly eaten by the majority of the population. Only when intensive farming production started in the 1950s, and the price fell to affordable levels, did it become the norm. A whole turkey remained a rare sight on the Victorian family table at Christmas – but not a rare sight at Christmas … particularly by those who could afford it in the cities, where your meat was cooked by the local baker or inn-keeper. Very few of the poorer urban houses had an oven to bake or roast in; you took what little you had to the baker or inn-keeper – who charged you on a Sunday or feast day to roast your meat in their ovens. On such days it was common to see processions of people carrying roast meats in the streets to and from home.
So it is probably only fitting that I end this article with a quote from Dickens, something from one of his Christmas short stories, not a well known one, but one that actually depicts more accurately what was eaten and shared by many on Christmas Day, ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’ (1854).
“I urged to the good lady that this was Christmas-eve; that Christmas comes but once a year … It was settled that at nine o’clock that night a Turkey and a piece of Roast Beef should smoke upon the board … I went back to my inn to give the necessary directions for the Turkey and Roast Beef … After the Cathedral bell had struck eight, I could smell a delicious savour of Turkey and Roast Beef rising to the window of my adjoining bedroom, which looked down into the inn-yard just where the lights of the kitchen reddened a massive fragment of the Castle Wall … As we passed along the High Street, comet-like, we left a long tail of fragrance behind us which caused the public to stop, sniffing in wonder … I never saw a finer turkey, finer beef, or greater prodigality of sauce and gravy.”