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Why Do We Eat Turkey at Christmas?

Typically served with a side of mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce, turkey is usually the main star of Christmas dinner. Many countries around the world have a rich history of eating turkey on this special occasion.


The turkeys we know today originally came from the Wild Turkey, a species that is native only to the Americas, and were domesticated over many years by the indigenous Mexicans.(4,5) British merchants bought them from Spanish conquistadors who brought them back from Mexico.(2) This was the first step in making turkey a traditional Christmas meal.


After turkey was introduced to the UK, it grew in popularity as a Christmas meat.(4) Before this, families had to carefully choose which animals to eat on special occasions, as these meals were expensive.(3) Whole geese were a typical choice at Christmas because they laid eggs only seasonally and weren’t of much use to the family in the winter.(9)


Henry VII, the king of England from 1485 to 1509, is known as the first person to make turkey a staple for Christmas day(1, 2). However, it took hundreds of years for turkey to go from a specialty item to the traditional Christmas meal that it is today.(4) It wasn’t until the 1950s that turkey became a more popular Christmas meal choice than goose.(3) Turkey is a popular Christmas dish because they are large enough to feed a table full of people, and unlike chickens or cows, they don’t serve an additional purpose like laying eggs or making milk.(11)


This tradition came to Canada in keeping with British holiday customs that had been brought over to the New World.(12) Today, there are over 520 turkey farmers in Canada.(7) According to the Turkey Farmers of Canada, in 2020, 2.9 million whole turkeys were purchased by Canadians during the Christmas season. This amounted to 41% of all whole turkey sales that year.(6)


But turkey is not the only food consumed on Christmas day. There are many different Christmas meal traditions in different cultures around the world. A Feast of Seven Fishes is enjoyed by some Italians on Christmas Eve with families gathering around a feast of seven different seafood dishes.(8) In Japan, people like to enjoy KFC fried chicken. In fact, this meal is so popular on Christmas Eve that people have to place their order months in advance.(10)


In Costa Rica, families like to enjoy a meal of tamales. Tamales consist of corn dough wrapped in a banana leaf or corn husk and then steamed. Some are stuffed with meat, such as pork, beef, or chicken. They may also be filled with garlic, onion, or potatoes.(10) In the Philippines, Hamón (cured pork leg) or Lechón (spit-roasted pig) are two common dishes at Christmas dinner.(10)


Turkey is just one traditional meal that people choose to enjoy on Christmas.



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