UK turns against turkey (but eats it anyway)

Crying fowl: The average cook spends 3.3 hours on Christmas dinner, says BTIS.

Is it time to dump the turkey at Christmas dinner? Around three quarters of families in the UK will serve it on December 25 — but only half of Britons actually want it. So why do we eat it?

It’s too dry. Sort of bland. Then there are the mountains of leftovers that are destined for endless sandwiches, pies and curries. That’s right — we’re talking turkey.

According to the British Turkey Information Service (BTIS) — yes that is a real thing — 76% of families eat turkey at Christmas. But a poll by YouGov found that 48% of Britons would prefer something else (the most popular alternative being beef). That’s a lot of people grudgingly eating white meat in their paper hats.

So why is turkey still so often the main event?

Just like that other Christmas staple, the roast potato, the turkey’s story begins in North America. The wild bird was common from Canada to Mexico and was first domesticated by the Aztecs — who loved them so much that they celebrated turkeys in religious festivals twice a year.

Spanish settlers brought turkeys back to Europe in the 15th century, where they proved immensely popular amongst royals and the wealthy. They reached Britain by the 1520s; according to legend, Henry VIII was the first king to tuck into turkey on Christmas Day. Until then, a royal Tudor Christmas would have included a boar’s head, swan, pheasant, peacock, or most likely all of them at once.

By the Victorian era, turkeys had become more established with ordinary people, although still pricey compared to the more popular choices of goose or beef.

Charles Dickens changed everything. When Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up from his haunting a new man in A Christmas Carol, his first act is to buy a prized turkey for his humble clerk Bob Cratchit’s family. “It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim,” Scrooge observes, and then he “chuckled till he cried.”

Less than 20 years later, the Victorian cookbook writer and domestic expert Mrs Beeton wrote that “a Christmas dinner with the middle classes of this empire, would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey”.

But it was not until around the 1930s that turkey became ubiquitous, thanks to a combination of new technology, economics and mass media. It has been the Christmas staple ever since. But is it time to go cold turkey?

All about that baste

Yes please, cry some. Save us from another year of dry meat desperately slathered in gravy. Turkeys are too big to cook easily, and there are plenty of other options that are just as festive (including some tasty vegetarian and vegan courses). We must not be bound by the wishes of the 52%!

Stop complaining, say others. (And please don’t make such terrible Brexit jokes at the dinner table.) Traditions are an important part of the festive season, and turkey is not dry if you cook it properly. Anyway, Christmas dinner is never really about the food; it’s about spending time with family.

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite part of Christmas dinner?
  2. How important are traditions during the holidays?


  1. Write a plan for your ideal festive meal. If you are feeling confident, write out a recipe for one of the key elements.
  2. Write your own Christmas story, in the style of Charles Dickens, which features a turkey.

Some People Say...

“Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas. Cos’ turkeys just wanna hav fun.”

Benjamin Zephaniah

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Due to their size, turkeys have always been practical for feeding large numbers, as well as festive. “The earliest written record of turkeys [in Britain] is attributed to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1541,” the food historian Sam Bilton told iNews last year. “He wanted to curb gluttony in the higher clergy by only allowing one bird to be served per dish”. Turkeys were ideal for this job.
What do we not know?
How long the turkey’s reign over Christmas dinner will continue. After all, despite the naysayers, it is still by far the most popular and traditional choice. It will take a sizeable shift in attitude (or perhaps a large swing to vegetarianism) to dethrone the turkey crown.

Word Watch

Based on a survey of 1,600 people in December 2016. Roast potatoes were the most popular item at Christmas, favoured by 85% of people. Beef was the preferred meat for 10%, chicken for 8%, goose for 6% and vegetarian alternatives for 8%.
An empire that ruled in what is now Mexico between the 14th and 16th centuries.
A Christmas Carol
Published by Charles Dickens in 1843.
Mrs Beeton
Isabella Beeton is the author of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, published in 1861. It included more than 900 recipes and advice for housewives on everything from raising children to religion. It was a huge success and is still seen as an important guide to Victorian culture.
The invention of refrigerators helped to keep the large birds cool. They also became easier to cook around this time.
The falling price of cereal allowed farmers to fatten up turkeys to even larger sizes, making them better for feeding large families. However, a turkey would still cost around a week’s wages in the 1930s.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.