Birds for Christmas Dinner

Birds for Christmas Dinner

Food historians tell us the practice of serving large, stuffed fowl for Christmas, like many other Christian holiday food traditions, was borrowed from earlier cultural practices. Peacocks, swans, geese, duck, guinea fowl, and turkeys all fit this bill in times past. The larger the bird, the more festive the presence. “New World” turkeys were introduced to Europe in the 16th century. For many years, these “exotic” turkey birds only graced the tables of the wealthy. In America, turkey (wild and plentiful) was a natural choice for the Christmas feast. Historic newspapers reveal the goose still commanded a traditional place on the Christmas table through the 19th century.

“Apart from the wild and tame fowl for everyday consumption, there were a few which were outstanding as celebratory birds for feasts and festivals. These were swans and peacocks among the rich, and herons and bustards for those less well off. The peacock made a fine show on a festive occasion… More usual than peacocks at feasts of the nobility were swans. The Percy Family [Medieval England] at them on the principal festivals of the church at the rate of five for Christmas Day, four for Twelfth Night, three for New Year’s Day… The family consumed an enormous range of both moor and waterfowl during the year, but the swans were appointed for those special days. Swan was roasted like goose, and served with chawdron sauce…”
~Food & Drink in Britain: From the Stone Age to the 19th Century, C. Anne Wilson, 1991


The roasted poultry we associate with traditional Christmas dinner would only have been one part of a bigger feast including venison, mutton, and various other meats. In the past, a traditional feast would have several courses with multiple dishes for each course. People would roast fowl throughout the year but especially at Christmas because they were at their fattest and most succulent. As early as the 16th-century farmers were growing turkeys for the English table due to the ease in breeding and farming domesticated turkeys versus other fowl, such as geese.

Roast Turkey
roast pheasant
Roast Pheasant














Roast swan was a favored dish in the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, particularly when skinned and redressed in its feathers and served with a yellow pepper sauce. Swan was also served stuffed with a series of increasingly smaller birds, in the style of a turducken. Swans have been the property of the Crown since around the twelfth century, but Edward IV’s Act Concerning Swans in 1482 clearly defined that ownership. There was a caveat to the law, however. All swans that were at liberty on open waters belonged to the Crown by prerogative right, but as long as the birds had their wings ‘pinioned’ and their bills marked, ownership could be granted to a landowner. For centuries swans’ bills were cut with identifying marks that indicated the identity of the ‘swannery’ to which they belonged. All over the country abbots, bishops, and wealthy landowners raised young swans for their tables and all marked their bird’s bills with unique distinguishing marks granted by the Crown to the various owners. Between 1450 and 1600, there were about 630 swan marks recorded for different owners of swans on London waters alone.

Mature swans have little subcutaneous fat and their flesh is exceedingly dry, making them a tough and entirely unsuitable meat. Can’t speak from personal experience on that! Eating the mature, plumed swan in Medieval times was more of a statement than culinary treat. Yet, in most instances it was not an adult swan that ended up in the pot or on the grill. Cygnets (baby swans) hatched in June and were plump and tender by December, perfect for a Christmas meat still tender and fatty.

Christmas Pie
A Christmas Pie with a filling of boned turkey, goose, duck, partridge, and pigeon.
roast duck
Roast Duck
Roast Goose

5 Comments for Birds for Christmas Dinner

  1. One Thanksgiving I sat down to a meal at a friend’s house. I thought we had roast beef and chicken. The “chicken” was very greasy and the “beef” was dry. Discovered that the “beef” was venison” and the “chicken” was possum.

  2. One year we were given a goose for Christmas. It wasn’t simply a matter of putting it in the oven. It still had its feathers, head and feet. The one who gave it to us spent hours getting it ready to be roasted. I think he parboiled it first to get rid of a strong flavor or grease or something. It was tasty but too much work for the flavor.
    One year were also had a small reh deer delivered to the door by the postman. The deer was frozen and came to us without wrappings or anything. Once again, I was happy to let others deal with the skinning and preparation for dinner. At that time I didn’t know I might want to know how they did it. Peacocks were often skinned and roasted and then put back into the skin which was then gilded. There is a book about such How to Cook a Peacock– I think is the title — by Jim Chevalier. Quite interesting if earlier than the regency.

    • Yikes! What a story! Closest I’ve come to that is the year my sister got a turkey from a friend who raised them. Free range, fed on organic food (this was in Oregon) and freshly slaughtered, so needless to say the meat was incredible tasting. We got it all prepped, so no feathers or anything, but what was forgotten was cleaning the bird’s crop! Didn’t realize until after cooking and slicing into the thing, discovering the sack filled with cooked seeds! Kind of gross, but it didn’t hurt the meat. Still, I think I like the Butterball buy-in-the-store method. LOL!

      Thanks for the book reference, Nancy. 🙂

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