This post is part of an occasional series about ethnography and folklore in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Find the whole series here!
In our last look at the foodways of Dickens’s classic story A Christmas Carol, we examined the joy the Cratchits take in their small but serviceable Christmas goose, as Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present secretly look on. After Scrooge has his change of heart, he decides to buy the Cratchits a more luxurious meal instead: a turkey. In this post, we’ll take a look at the turkey, how it became part of English cuisine, and especially how it became a standard meal at holiday time.
One theory is that Dickens himself popularized the turkey. However, as we’ll see, it was a popular Christmas meal long before his time. It is often said that Dickens originated or popularized many Christmas traditions, but this often betrays a poor understanding of history. In his book The Man Who Invented Christmas, for example, Les Standiford tells us:
There were no Christmas cards in 1843 England, no Christmas trees at royal residences or White Houses, no Christmas turkeys, no department-store Santa or his million clones, no outpouring of ‘Yuletide greetings,’ no weeklong cessation of business affairs through the New Year, no orgy of gift-giving, no ubiquitous public display of nativity scenes (or court fights regarding them), no holiday lighting extravaganzas, and no plethora of midnight services celebrating the birth of a savior.
Standiford is right about some of this, of course: department-store Santas and lighting extravaganzas were in the future. But he is wrong on many counts. For example, gift-giving at Christmas and New Year’s had been popular for centuries (though what qualifies as an “orgy” is unclear). Queen Charlotte introduced Christmas trees to the royal residences by 1800, and although it doesn’t appear there was a Christmas tree at royal residences every year after 1800, Victoria and Albert had certainly revived the tradition by 1841 when the queen wrote in her journal about enjoying the smell of Christmas trees at Windsor Castle. As for the White House, The Atlantic Monthly provides evidence that President Tyler had Christmas trees there in the years 1841-1843. Finally, famously, the first commercial Christmas cards were created in England in 1843.
Most importantly for our purposes, there were indeed Christmas turkeys in England in 1843, and there had been for many years. Turkey was a longstanding part of English cuisine, and specifically of the English Christmas table. Before we explore that history, though, let’s enjoy Dickens’s scene, which occurs the morning Scrooge awakens after his experience with Marley and the three spirits:
Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!
“What’s to-day!” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.
“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.
“To-day!” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”
“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow!”
“Hallo!” returned the boy.
“Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Scrooge inquired.
“I should hope I did,” replied the lad.
“An intelligent boy!” said Scrooge. “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there?—Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?”
“What, the one as big as me?” returned the boy.
“What a delightful boy!” said Scrooge. “It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!”
“It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy.
“Is it?” said Scrooge. “Go and buy it.”
“Walk-er!” exclaimed the boy.
“No, no,” said Scrooge, “I am in earnest. Go and buy it, and tell ’em to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it. Come back with the man, and I’ll give you a shilling. Come back with him in less than five minutes and I’ll give you half-a-crown!”
The boy was off like a shot. He must have had a steady hand at a trigger who could have got a shot off half so fast.
“I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s!” whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh. “He sha’n’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim. Joe Miller never made such a joke as sending it to Bob’s will be!”
The hand in which he wrote the address was not a steady one, but write it he did, somehow, and went down-stairs to open the street door, ready for the coming of the poulterer’s man. As he stood there, waiting his arrival, the knocker caught his eye.
“I shall love it, as long as I live!” cried Scrooge, patting it with his hand. “I scarcely ever looked at it before. What an honest expression it has in its face! It’s a wonderful knocker!—Here’s the Turkey! Hallo! Whoop! How are you! Merry Christmas!”
It was a Turkey! He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped ’em short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax.
“Why, it’s impossible to carry that to Camden Town,” said Scrooge. “You must have a cab.”
The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid for the Turkey, and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried.
Given that turkeys come from North America, it may surprise readers to know that they had been part of English foodways for over 300 years by Dickens’s time. Many English and American people think of the Massachusetts settlers we call “the Pilgrims” and their so-called “first Thanksgiving” feast of 1621 as an early meeting between English people and turkeys. As I pointed out in this previous blog post, most evidence does point to the “Pilgrims” eating turkey at that feast, despite recent claims to contrary. But it wasn’t that early an encounter; the bird was known in England some 100 years earlier. First imported to Europe by Spanish traders returning from New Spain in the early 16th century, turkeys were soon being bred and born in Europe; food historian Pen Vogler dates the arrival of turkeys in England to the 1520s. Turkey was becoming an important bird in England by 1557, when according to P.E. Jones, it appears in the records of the Worshipful Company of Poulters, London’s poultry guild. In 1559, Jones tells us that turkeys were finally added to a list of guild-regulated “poultry wares,” showing that they were being sold in large numbers, and considered a commodity worth regulating.
It wasn’t long before the bird became a popular Christmas dish. In 1573, Thomas Tusser described “Christmas Husbandly Fare” in his book Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry:
Good bread & good drinke, a good fyer in the hall,
brawne pudding & souse & good mustarde withal.
Biefe, mutton, & porke, shred pyes of the best,
pig, veale, goose & capon, & Turkey wel drest.
Nicholas Breton, in Fantasticks (1626), likewise mentions turkey among the many dishes eaten at Christmas:
Now Capons and Hennes, beside Turkies, Geese and Duckes, besides Beefe and Mutton, must all die for the great feast, for in twelue dayes a multitude of people will not bee fed with a little.
Tusser, Breton, and many other early sources describe the turkey as just one of many foods eaten at Christmas. But it soon came to be seen as the most appropriate bird to eat at this time of year, and appropriate also to give as a Christmas gift. Between 1685 and 1691, P. E. Jones tells us, it became customary for the poulters’ guild (which had access to every form of poultry on the market) to give their clerk a turkey at Christmas, a tradition which continued for many decades, and which delightfully foreshadows Scrooge’s gift to his own long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit.
By the eighteenth century, turkey came to be seen as one of the most important components of a proper English Christmas meal–sometimes accompanied by “chine,” the bacon that remains near the backbone of the pig. In 1748, Horace Walpole expressed his indifference to Christmas by writing to Sir Horace Mann:
Here am I come down to what you call keep my Christmas! indeed it is not in all the forms; I have stuck no laurel and holly in my windows, I eat no turkey and chine, I have no tenants to invite, I have not brought a single soul with me.
Evidently, eating turkey and chine, like decking the hall with holly, was emblematic of Christmas by the middle of the 18th century.
So how did the turkey come to dominate the English Christmas table? Several factors probably contributed. Certainly, one was its size. The largest bird available to most English households, the turkey contributed abundance to a Christmas feast. Let’s remember Dickens’s description of the Cratchits’ Christmas goose. Although it makes a lovely meal, there are several indications that it’s perhaps a bit small for a family of 8:
Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last!
Reading between the lines, we understand that they DID eat it all, and that it wouldn’t have been enough without potatoes and apples on the side.
Contrast this with Dickens’s view of turkeys. Dickens received an annual gift of a turkey from his publishers, Bradbury and Evans, in the years just before he wrote A Christmas Carol. On January 2, 1840, he wrote to them, in thanks for their generosity:
My Dear Sirs,
I determined not to thank you for the Turkey until it was quite gone, in order that you might have a becoming idea of its astonishing capabilities.
The last remnant of that blessed bird made its appearance at breakfast yesterday – I repeat it, yesterday – the other portions having furnished forth seven grills, one boil and a cold lunch or two.
Accept my warm thanks (in which Mrs. Dickens begs to join) for your annual recollection of us, which we value very highly as one of the pleasant circumstances of a pleasant season – and couple with them my hearty wishes for many happy years to both of you and both of yours – and of good health and good work and good feeling to all of us.
If the abundance afforded by a turkey made it an ideal bird for the Christmas feast, a second factor that made it popular at Christmas was the seasonal nature of turkey farming. Mrs. Isabella Beeton tells us that in Britain around Dickens’s time, full-grown turkeys were available from September through March. (At other times you could get poults, as immature turkeys are called.) She also tells us that turkeys were “seasonable” from December to February. In other words, given the methods of husbandry employed in Britain at the time, turkeys were in especially good form at Christmas and the few weeks around it.
A third reason for turkeys to be most popular around Christmas, and possibly the most important, had to do with technology. Before the widespread use of railways and the advent of refrigeration, it was hard to transport meat from one part of the country to another. It would take days for a slaughtered turkey to make it from large farming areas like Norfolk to other great metropolitan markets like London, which would make it a challenge to sell the animals before the meat spoiled. For this reason among others, animals, including turkeys, were driven to market on foot and sold live or slaughtered after they arrived. According to journalist Margaret Visser, thousands of turkeys were driven from Norfolk to London each year, and had to wear shoes for the journey:
Their feet were dipped in thick pitch or tied up in sacking and covered with little boots to protect them on the long noisy march south.
Historian Judith Flanders further tells us that this great turkey drive took several weeks, and that the birds had to be fed extra to give them energy for the trek and to regain their weight on arrival. The shoes and the feeding added to the turkeys’ cost, making them very expensive at market when brought there on foot.
In colder temperatures, however, the poultry could undergo a three-day journey, plus added time to find its way to retail markets, without spoiling. In addition, turkey being specifically a Christmas meal meant that farmers knew exactly when the birds would be eaten, simplifying the calculation of when to slaughter them and send them on the road. At Christmas, therefore, Flanders tells us, turkeys could be slaughtered in Norfolk and brought to London by stagecoach. Among other things, this made them more available and less costly at Christmas than at other times of year. In The Book of Christmas, published seven years before A Christmas Carol, Thomas Hervey (who erroneously believed that turkeys came from the country of Turkey) discusses the Christmas turkey’s journey by coach, and Robert Seymour provides an illustration:
Many a time have we seen a Norfolk coach with its hampers piled on the roof and swung from beneath the body, and its birds depending, by every possible contrivance, from every part from which a bird could be made to hang. Nay, we believe it is not unusual with the proprietors, at this season, to refuse inside passengers of the human species, in favor of these Oriental gentry, who “pay better;” and on such occasions of course they set at defiance the restriction which limits them to carrying “four insides.” Within and without, the coaches are crammed with the bird of Turkey; and a gentleman town-ward bound, who presented himself at a Norwich coach-office at such a time, to inquire the “fare to London,” was pertly answered by the bookkeeper, “Turkeys.” Our readers will acquit us of exaggeration when we tell them that Mr. Hone, in his “Every-Day Book,” quotes from an historical account of Norwich an authentic statement of the amount of turkeys which were transmitted from that city to London between a Saturday morning and the night of Sunday, in the December of 1793, which statement gives the number as one thousand seven hundred, the weight as nine tons, two hundredweight, and two pounds, and the value as £680. It is added that in the two following days these were followed by half as many more. We are unable to furnish the present statistics of the matter; but in forty years which have elapsed since that time the demand, and of course the supply, must have greatly increased; and it is probable that the coach-proprietors find it convenient to put extra carriages on the road for these occasions.
By the time Dickens died, the Norfolk coaches bedecked with turkeys had given way to railway freight cars. In fact, according to surviving correspondence, the turkey Dickens ordered for Christmas 1869 never arrived; it was damaged in a railway fire en route to him! When he learned of this, he was at first angry, but then happy to learn that the still-edible parts of the turkey had been sold at a reduced rate to poor people in Reading, where the fire took place. When the Great Western Railway Company wrote to offer apologies and compensation, Dickens replied:
I have no doubt my Christmas fare was destroyed by an unavoidable accident, and that I bore the loss with unbroken good humour towards the Great Western Railway Company.
History doesn’t record whether Dickens, like Scrooge, was able to send a boy out and buy an emergency turkey on Christmas day, or if he had to make do with some other meal. Sadly, though, it was his last Christmas dinner; he died in June 1870.
As we have seen, turkey had already become one of England’s favorite Christmas dishes by the time Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. By depicting the turkey as Scrooge’s choice of gift, Dickens wasn’t being particularly innovative or trend-setting, as Standiford suggests. But he was certainly using the turkey to illustrate some of the most important themes of A Christmas Carol.
About 20 years after Dickens’s famous ghost story, Mrs. Isabella Beeton wrote in her popular guidebook The Book of Household Management:
A Christmas dinner, with the middle classes of this Empire, would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey, and we can hardly imagine an object of greater envy than is presented by a respected portly pater familias carving, at the season devoted to good cheer and genial charity, his own fat turkey and carving it well.
Mrs. Beeton’s passage gets to the heart of the Cratchits’ situation. As I pointed out a few years ago, the firm of Scrooge and Marley is a small bank specializing in buying discounted debt and collecting it by foreclosing on the debtors. Cratchit is therefore a bank clerk. He is literate and numerate enough to understand different clients’ accounts; he is educated and personable enough to interact with the firm’s clients and other visitors, including Scrooge’s nephew Fred; and he is trustworthy enough to hold the office keys. But he can’t quite rise to the level of the middle class: he can’t afford to eat turkey, his Christmas pudding is small, and more seriously, he can’t afford help for his sick child. This lack of dignity for the working class was a major issue for Dickens, which he addressed in many of his writings, including pamphlets like Sunday Under Three Heads.
These, then, are some of the reasons for putting the turkey in A Christmas Carol. Not only was turkey Dickens’s own choice of Christmas dinner, it honored the centuries-old traditions we’ve mentioned of eating and giving turkeys at Christmas, while also making a contemporary point. That point was simply this: the Cratchits, and countless working people like them, are worthy of a prosperous middle-class life. Scrooge, as they say, puts his money where his mouth is, by first buying the turkey, then raising Bob’s salary and befriending his family, which ultimately saves Tiny Tim. By stating that Scrooge had become “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew,” Dickens makes it clear that Scrooge’s behavior should be emulated by other employers. In this way, the turkey in A Christmas Carol represents the first step toward righting not just a personal wrong, but a widespread societal one.
Thanks for reading, and Happy Holidays! Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, and whether you choose goose, turkey, or tofu, we wish you a joyous holiday season!