This year A Christmas Carol is 180 years old, first published in December 1843. It had sold out by Christmas Eve. And it has a lot to answer for, not simply because it ultimately spawned Kelsey Grammer’s Christmas Carol musical, but because it is credited with having popularised the idea of turkey as a festive staple. As you’ll recall, turkey is what Scrooge has sent to his clerk Bob Cratchit once he’s had his Damascene moment – and the idea took off. Within a few short years (1861 in fact), Mrs Beeton had declared that ‘a Christmas dinner, with the middle classes of this empire, would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey.’
Drier than a month in the Priory, turkey is proof of man’s slavish submission to tradition. How can this pale, insipid, flavourless foul really be considered worthy of celebrating the birth of the Saviour of humanity? That’s why Dickens has a lot to answer for, albeit with a little help from others, not least Bernard Matthews, the 20th century’s turkey-pusher-in-chief. Because regardless of how you dress it, cook it or reheat it, a roasted turkey is a fundamentally bland disappointment of a dish.
Well, we know the answer: first, most people in Britain are functioning atheists, and so the Saviour scarcely is the first thing on their postprandial minds as they unbuckle their belts. And, second, it is surely what is served with the turkey that maintains its survival at the centre of our Christmas lunches – whether it’s the roasted ham or potatoes, the ingeniously cooked stuffing, the pigs in blankets, the richly buttered vegetables or cranberry sauce. A modern Christmas dinner is as much about the turkey itself as Strictly is about the Charleston or Argentine Tango; the foul is merely a foil and, because we only have it once a year, it’s become a novelty, one we can usually just about tolerate.