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Why Do People Eat Turkey At Christmas?

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

It's Christmas time again and this means that televisions are filled with adverts for perfume and turkey. Not turkey the country, turkey the bird, and these birds aren't alive, they are roasted and covered with gravy.


Turkeys are large, intelligent birds, around 122cm tall and originally came from the Americas. The wild turkey came from the north and the ocellated turkey came form the south, around Mexico. Turkeys are well known for having a wattle, a kind of skin pouch that hangs from the top of their beaks, but it's only the males that have these. The first turkeys evolved more than 20 million years ago. Turkeys got their name, in English, from the Turkish merchants that first captured them and took them to the Middle East to farm and trade them with European countries. Turkeys are foragers, they will scratch around the ground and in leaf litter, chasing bugs and milling for seeds. Turkeys are also talkers, they have 28 distinct calls that they use to communicate and male turkeys will make the gobble gobble sound to attract the ladies. Turkeys are also very proud birds and will start preening at just 3 days old so that they can look their best.

turkey, bird
Am I the only one that thinks turkeys are gorgeous?

Turkey was first eaten for Christmas in England in the 16th century, with only the rich being able to afford the bird. Lack of easy transportation and refrigeration meant that it was hard to take slaughtered turkeys across the country. Traditionally at this time boar, goose, swan and peacock were eaten for important meals and celebrations, this was until it was decided that the rich, particularly the monarchy, were becoming too fat. They were limited to serving one bird for a meal and so turkeys were used due to their size. Through the 17th century it became more popular to eat turkey for celebrations until it became a tradition that most people followed, this lead to turkey birds being thought of as food and nothing else.

A Turkey Free Christmas

18 million turkeys are killed for meat each year, with 9 million being killed just for Christmas. This is a staggering number of birds that are killed for just one meal. The life of a farmed turkey is a miserable one. Once the eggs are laid they are taken from their mothers and placed in incubators and, once hatched, the turkeys will never see their mothers, they keep warm by huddling together under heat lamps. Once large enough they are placed in large sheds and left to grow much in the same way as chickens. Being bred to grow as large as possible and as quickly as possible, the turkeys legs often break under their own weight. The birds are killed at 5-6 months old, in the wild they would live up to ten years. The way that turkeys are treated is horrendous; they are thrown into crates and cages, loaded onto trucks before being killed in ways that do not spare the birds pain. Yet when you ask people why they eat turkey at Christmas, why the birds have to go through this, their answer is "tradition"; it's what we've always done, it's what everyone does, a lot of them go on to say that they don't even like turkey meat, they just eat it.

In the last 10 years veganism has increased by 350%, but it is only recently that food retailers, supermarkets and restaurants have realised how many people want to eat this way. One supermarket had an increase of 275% in vegan searches on their website in 12 months and this year there has been a massive increase in the number of vegan Christmas foods available. Nut roasts, meat free wellingtons, roasts made with soy meat substitutes and turkey replacements. There is so much to choose from that there really is something for everyone, turkeys don't have to go through this for the sake of one dinner.


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