The Legend of Goose Day
For most Mifflin County residents, a mouthful of roast goose on Goose Day simply means keeping up tradition and a little fun, along with a once-a-year change in diet — and maybe crossed fingers just in case it does bring good luck.
Goose Day, of course, is Mifflin County’s unique holiday. The county is reputed to be the only place in the United States where the medieval Michaelmas feast is still celebrated. Although its roots trace back as far as the fifth century, little is known about the holiday and still less is known about how geese came to be associated with the holiday.
Michaelmas is most often mentioned in novels of English country life. At least as far back as the 15th century, Michaelmas was one of the quarter-days on which landlords collected their quarterly rents from their tenants. The association of the goose to Michaelmas is traceable as far back as the reign of Edward IV of England (1442-1484). The holiday fell in the season when stubble (wild or greylag) geese were in their finest fettle, and tenants developed the custom of showing up at the landlord’s house with the rent in hand, the lease in a pocket and a fine stubble goose under one arm, in hopes of having the lease renewed — and with good terms at that.
Roast goose became the traditional centerpiece of the Michaelmas dinner. And somehow the tradition developed that eating roast goose on Michaelmas would guarantee the diner good fortune in the coming year, and that he would be at least $1,000 richer by the end of 12 months. Some traditions also contend that one could predict the weather for the coming winter by the color of the breast meat of the Michaelmas goose.
Time shrouds the truth of how the Michaelmas tradition came to Mifflin County — where it’s simply called “Goose Day.” The most plausible story of how Goose Day came to Mifflin County harks back to the Michaelmas observance, and has the celebration coming to Mifflin County from Union County.
The story goes that a Dutchman (German) named Andrew Pontius settled in the Buffalo Valley, built a mansion house and began to look for a tenant farmer. He decided to walk to Lancaster in 1785 to find a hired hand from among his kinsmen.
He got only as far as Harrisburg before he crossed paths with Archibald Hunter in a tavern in that town. Hunter had arrived in the New World on an English naval vessel during the Revolutionary War.
He had jumped ship when the British fleet docked in Philadelphia and was drifting west in search of a new life. Impressed with the young man, Pontius offered him a job.
Hunter accepted, and the two drew up an agreement, with Hunter insisting that Sept. 29 be the designated day accounts were to be settled. Hunter accompanied Pontius to his farm, and settled in a log cabin on the property.
True to his bargain, Hunter arrived at the landlord’s door on Sept. 29, to pay his rent, bearing his accounts — and with a fine goose tucked under his arm.
Unaware of the tradition, the German Pontius was surprised at the gift. From his own English heritage, Hunter explained to Pontius the tradition of Michaelmas Day, when it was always the custom to include “one goose for the lord’s dinner” when paying the rent.
Hunter also quoted the English proverb, “If you eat goose on Michaelmas Day, you will never want for money the year round.”
The goose turned out to be good luck for Hunter, who also introduced another, more romantic tradition into the Pontius household. He told them that a special part of the Michaelmas feast was a cake with a gold ring stirred into the batter. The finder of the ring could expect an early marriage.
So the story goes, Anna Schneider, Pontius’ niece, who was visiting from eastern Pennsylvania, was intrigued by the romantic idea and suggested that such a cake be baked. Anna found the ring in the Michaelmas cake — and a husband in the person of Archibald Hunter.
There’s no religious tradition associated with Goose Day as there was with Michaelmas in the distant past, when it was considered a day of obligation in the Catholic church.
The late Ben Meyers, columnist for The Sentinel, was long a proponent of the day being capitalized on in the county. For many years it was an occasion for special fundraiser dinners by churches and fire companies, but the celebration really got off the ground in Mifflin County in the early 1980s.
The coordinated celebration has fallen by the wayside, but many Goose Day events are still held throughout the county — and many restaurants and organizations still find the goose is golden when they serve the dark-meat fowl on Sept. 29.
A few other stories have turned up regarding possible origins of Goose Day.
Meyers turned up one Christian Zipp, who contended the Goose Day tradition originated in Holland. The story goes that the town of Leyden was besieged by the Spanish in the Middle Ages.
The siege lasted so long the citizens of Leyden were near starvation when, Meyers noted, somebody got the idea to open the dikes and flood the Spaniards out.
That strategy appeared to work, and eventually the Dutch sent out a lad to check out the situation.
“But he stayed an unusually long time and the townspeople, standing on the walls, wondered what kept him. When he finally waved that the coast was clear, the Leydeners swarmed out of the gates to the place where the Spaniards had been camped and found what had delayed the boy. Roast Goose,” Meyers wrote.
“The Dutch fell to and ate the victuals left behind by the fleeing Spanish, and this is the origin of Goose Day. Forever afterwards, the people of Leyden celebrated their bloodless victory over the Spaniards by eating roast goose.”
Zipp — or Meyers — never explained why the on-rushing water that routed the Spaniards so quickly did not also float away the roast geese.
Other traditions credit the Goose Day tradition to the Amish, who had lived in Holland for a time, then brought the tradition with them when they settled in Pennsylvania. There was also a fairly widespread belief at one time Goose Day was a hoax popularized by the Amish to sell their excess birds.
Ironically, most of the geese consumed in Mifflin County on Goose Day still come from small flocks raised by the Amish.
Whatever its origin, Goose Day is alive and well in Mifflin County, where people eat roast goose on Sept. 29 for fun, for tradition — and maybe for a little luck as well.