History & Culture

Turkey at Christmas | The Origins of Christmas Dinner

Christmas dinner is a central part of the festive celebrations, but what counts as a ‘traditional’ feast varies across different cultures – in terms of what’s on the plate, yes, but also when it’s eaten and how it came to be tradition.

When you think of Christmas dinner, what comes to mind? Many of us have a very clear picture of what constitutes a ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner - but your mental picture might not be the same as mine. The quintessentially British “turkey and all the trimmings” is probably the most well-known Christmas meal in popular culture – but where does “turkey at Christmas” come from? And what about the many other cultures which celebrate Christmas but have their own culinary traditions? 

Why do we eat turkey at Christmas?

Today, the centrepiece of the traditional British Christmas dinner is the turkey. But turkey is actually a relatively new addition to the Christmas menu, with the bird only introduced to the UK (from its native home in the Americas) in the 1500s.1 Before turkey, goose held the crown as the bird of choice at Christmas – possibly because mid-winter was when the birds were at their fattest, having roamed farmyards throughout August picking up loose grain that was spilled during harvest.1,2

Throughout the 1500s-1800s, turkey slowly became a more and more popular Christmas meal in wealthier British households, with the British royal family even making the switch to turkey in the 1850s (replacing their traditional choice of roasted swan). But turkeys were expensive, so cheaper options including goose and chicken remained popular on most Christmas tables until the mid-20th century.2

The British taste for turkey at Christmas was then exported around the world via the British empire – though some countries have instead stuck with tradition, such as Austria where most families still opt for goose over turkey.

Christmas dinners around the world

Turkey is far from the only option for a festive feast. Pork is also a hugely popular option, with many people across the European continent opting for ham, gammon or suckling pig. The historical rationale for eating pork at Christmas is similar to that of goose – pigs were fattest just before winter, and could be slaughtered without spoiling in storage thanks to the colder weather.2

For many families in central Europe, such as Hungary, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Belarus, fish is the order of the day – with roast carp usually the most popular choice. Some families even buy a live carp and keep it in the family bathtub for a few days before killing and serving it!3 Italians opt to enjoy the best of both worlds, often eating a fish-based meal on Christmas Eve followed by a Christmas day feast rich in meats like beef and pork. 

In Greenland, muktuk (strips of frozen whale skin and blubber) are served alongside kiviak, a dish made by wrapping up to 500 whole auks (birds similar to puffins) in a sealskin and burying it in the ground for several months until it starts to ferment. Meanwhile iIn Australia, the hot December weather has led many people to swap their traditional turkey dinner for a seafood barbeque, often enjoyed outdoors or by the beach. And in Japan, a wildly successful 1974 marketing campaign called “Kentucky for Christmas” has made KFC’s fried chicken the only choice for millions of Japanese families on Christmas Day.4

Why do we feast at Christmas?

Christmas is now a holiday celebrated by people and nations of all faiths, but it was once primarily a religious festival celebrated by Christians to mark the birth of Christ. Christian festivals like Christmas and Easter have always been marked by a feast, but this feast was traditionally preceded by a period of fasting for 40 days.5

Fun fact: the first documented “Christmas” was in 336 CE, when the early Christian church set 25th December as the birth date of Christ - but there’s good evidence that midwinter pagan festivals (such as Natali Sol Invinci or ‘The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun’) and Roman festivals (including Saturnalia, the festival of Saturn) which were celebrated long before this date still closely resembled Christmas celebrations. These early pagan festivals may even be the source of some traditions that we still associate with Christmas today!6,7 

Traditionally, Christmas Eve was the ‘vigil of Christmas’ which meant a day of fasting and abstinence. Crucially, meat was traditionally banned until Christmas Day morning, which helps explain why fish remains a popular choice for Christmas Dinner in countries such as Germany, where the festive feast is usually eaten on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day itself.8

Is it time to make Christmas more sustainable?

For many of us, the Christmas feasts that we know and love are built around large meaty centrepieces. But such traditions were born of a time when food was less available in Europe than it is today. The Christmas Day feast was, for many, a rare chance to indulge in meat – and was traditionally preceded by a long fasting period throughout November and December, where meat and fish were unlikely to be on the menu.

But meat and fish are now readily available to most people, and for many people form part of their daily diet. This increase in availability of and demand for meat has had a dramatic impact: the farming of livestock now contributes almost 15% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions across the globe.9 

So perhaps is it time to think about a more sustainable way to celebrate at Christmas. You could swap out your ham or turkey for a nut roast, ensure you minimise food waste or even bring back the tradition of fasting. By avoiding meat and fish throughout December, we could all still enjoy our favourite festive feasts whilst simultaneously reducing the impact of our diets on the planet. That’s sure to get you off the naughty list.

Check out these 3 sustainable festive alternatives to holiday foods.

And whilst we’re warm and feasting, we shouldn’t forget about our fellow and less fortunate humans. Winter across much of Europe is brutal and cold, and as the nights draw in the less fortunate among us may well find themselves without even food or shelter. Luckily, if you’re feeling in the spirit of goodwill, there are plenty of ways you can donate and lend your support to help feed the hungry this Christmas. Here are a few organisations we know of to get you started:

Are you doing anything this festive season to benefit the planet or those less fortunate than you? Let us know in the comments below!

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