It seems that birds have often been headliners at Christmas dinners. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the rich might have had peacock or swan as well as their goose or turkey.
Henry VIII is credited with being the first monarch to have turkey for his Christmas dinner. But for most of Henry’s subjects, goose was the favored holiday bird. Later the Victorians would even have goose clubs to help them save up for that special Christmas meal. Then herds of big tom turkeys strode into town and kicked the goose off the Christmas platter.
For the working-class Victorians, goose was the favorite holiday meal. But the average Joe couldn’t just go out and buy one the week before Christmas. He had to save up for it. The pub owners kindly helped out by forming goose clubs, a type of savings club that would begin around October.
Every week, after the men had collected their wages, they would go to the pubs and pay their shilling into the goose club to reserve a bird for their families’ Christmas dinner. But, of course, the pub owners weren’t just doing this out of the kindness of their hearts: When the men came in to make their goose installments, they usually had a pint (or two or three) for themselves while they were there.
When the big day finally arrived, everyone who had paid in would congregate at the pub to claim their Christmas goose. To make it fair, all the names would be put into a hat. One goose would be held up and a name would be drawn. And, be it fat or scrawny, if your name was drawn, that’s the goose you got.
At home the goose would be cleaned, prepared, and probably filled with sage and onion stuffing. Since most houses didn’t have ovens, all those geese would be taken to the bakers for roasting. Then on Christmas morning, everyone went to collect their dinner from the bakery. What an aroma that must have been.
Dickens and Turkeys
But the geese got a reprieve when turkeys took over as the favorite Christmas dinner. Charles Dickens popularized the turkey dinner in a Christmas Carol. The poor Cratchit family had happily made do with their little goose, but when Scrooge had his transformation and became a generous soul, he bought the Cratchits a big turkey. And that went a long way toward making turkey the Victorian symbol of a happy family Christmas meal.
Turkeys were raised mostly in Norfolk or Suffolk which are both about a hundred miles from London. So how did they get all those Christmas birds to the Londoners who wanted them? Simple, they used to have turkey drives.
As early as August, farmers would set off walking with flocks of up to 1,000 turkeys. Turkeys tend to stroll, and the farmers were fine with that because they wanted them to take it slowly and stop often for food so they wouldn’t lose too much weight along the way. So, the 100 mile or so walk could take up to three months.
However, that long walk to London was hard on those little turkey feet so something had to be done. Some lucky turkeys got to wear specially-made, little leather boots. Less fortunate ones might have their feet wrapped in rags, and economy models had their feet coated in tar. (Ouch!) After reaching London, they had a short time to be fattened up again, then they were ready to grace that bountiful Christmas table.
Who are you calling a Turkey?
And speaking of turkeys… Have you ever wondered why that big gobbler, which is native to the Americas, is named after a country halfway around the world?
Well, it seems that in the 1500s the Spanish brought some of them back from Mexico where the Aztecs had domesticated them. The big unusual birds began to be traded around Europe and the Mediterranean. The British bought their exotic fowl from Turkish merchants, and the large American birds became associated with them and were called Turkey fowl. Soon the name was just shortened to turkey.
It’s interesting that even in other languages this bird is associated with places far from its native land. In French, turkey is dinde which is shortened from poulet d’inde (chicken of India) possibly because, at the time, Columbus thought he had landed in India. I think the Portuguese word is closest geographically, they call the turkey a peru. While the bird didn’t technically come from Peru, it is certainly closer than Turkey or India.
Wherever you are in the world and whatever will be on your dinner table, here’s wishing you the happiest of holidays.
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