Here’s a Christmas day menu to consider: 3,000 hens, 10,000 eels, 15,000 herrings and 400 hogs. That’s what King John of England ordered for Christmas dinner (with an untold number of guests) in 1213. Dozens of casks of wine were available to wash it all down.
We may not recognize much about that menu, but our Christmas food traditions, like many of our customs, do come primarily from England. Scrooge himself may be partly responsible for making turkey our default Christmas dinner. After Charles Dickens published his novella A Christmas Carol in 1843, it quickly became popular in the United States, as well. The story concludes, of course, with Scrooge giving a turkey to Tiny Tim’s family, and some historians suggest the book’s popularity helped turkey become a Christmas table staple here, too.
Turkey has inherent practical advantages, as well: Turkeys are large (so one bird can go a long way) and relatively inexpensive to raise (compared to geese and chickens at that time). And poultry generally was more economical than beef because people wanted to keep their cows alive as long as possible, according to a Slate magazine article, and commercial beef was scarce until the close of the 19th century. “Chicken was more highly regarded than it is today, but rooster meat was tough, and hens were valuable as long as they laid eggs,” the article continues. “…There was plenty of ham or brined pork around, but it wasn’t considered fit for special occasions.”
A shift occurred around the start of the 20th century, however, “as the birds became associated with the working class and poor immigrants, who often received turkeys from charities during the holidays. Americans continued to serve Thanksgiving turkey, but at Christmas, those who could afford it turned to game and beef.”
Statistics suggest many Americans today are indeed cooking up something other than turkey for their Yuletide feast: The National Turkey Federation estimates that we ate 46 million turkeys at Thanksgiving last year but only 22 million at Christmas. It’s a similar story in England. A recent survey found more than 50 percent of respondents were buying lamb, beef and goose this year, while only 41 percent were opting for turkey.
Worldwide, the Christmas turkey maintains a strong showing, from Australia to Brazil to Mexico. But in France, it’s just as likely venison, pheasant, duck or goose is at the center of the Christmas table. In the Philippines, Christmas dinner is usually pork; in Kenya, goat or beef hit the Christmas grill. Christmas dinner in Russia often means pork or maybe goose. In the Czech Republic, carp is the traditional holiday main course; many people pick out their carp still alive and keep them in a bathtub until Christmas arrives.
In Japan, Christmas dinner means chicken, and not just any chicken — the Colonel’s. Kentucky Fried Chicken’s marketing department has succeeded in convincing many Japanese that here in the West we ring in Christmas with KFC. Now orders are placed two months ahead, and lines form around the block at Christmastime as the Japanese await their extra-crispy holiday feast.
Whatever you’re serving this year, we wish you a delicious Christmas dinner and a happy and healthy holiday.