Goose Day — How it all began

Burnham was first to pick up Goose Day challenge

Editor’s note: The following historical information was compiled by the late Jim Canfield for use in The Sentinel’s 1979 special Goose Day supplement.

LEWISTOWN –About 20 years ago [c. 1959] a newspaper columnist named Jay James wrote that American life had abandoned all customs related to Michaelmas, the feast of St. Michael, and all angels.

In noting that Michaelmas is often mentioned in novels of English rural life, James went on to say that “traditional for the day in England is the serving of roast goose for dinner. American life has abandoned any Michaelmas customs that may have crossed the water in the Colonial period.”

James, of course, was a little slipshod in his research, for Michaelmas falls on Sept. 29 — which for more than a half-century has been observed as Goose Day in Mifflin County.

That half-century is a conservative figure, to say the least, because just when and how Goose Day came into popularity as an annual observance — restricted to this one lone area of these vast United States –is buried somewhere in the mysticism of the past.

There have been plenty of theories on the origin of Goose Day, both here and in Europe, all of which were researched by the late Ben Meyers, former Sentinel city editor and columnist.

As a matter of fact, Ben once had the dream of Goose Day becoming so popular as to make the day and date synonymous with Mifflin County throughout the country.

It was in 1934 that he first proposed that county or local governments interest themselves in the project and may issue a proclamation to officially note the observance.

His initial appeal actually was directed at Burnham, where several public “feeds” were held each Sept. 29 that featured the succulent and saucy fowl.

When the 1934 date passed without incident or response from Burnham, he penned these words in his “We Notice That” column:

“We have not heard of Burnham accepting our proposal to establish Goose Day as an annual event somewhat after the famous McClure Bean Soup and the Belleville Festival. So in all seriousness, we now offer it to the Lewistown Chamber of Commerce, the Lewistown Transportation Company, etcetera.

“Lewistown could become publicized all over the world if it would go in stronger than ever on Goose Day. Thousands of people would come for the event. Why not work it up for next year?”

There was a response this time. It came from the Burnham Fire Company, whose membership voted unanimously to establish Goose Day as an annual event. That very year, the company’s auxiliary heated up the stoves and served more than 200 dinners.

There was a boom in the Burnham observance for several years, but then came a bust, and observance of the proclamation ended up in the same place as most other good intentions that never reach fulfillment.

Still, a goose dinner on Goose Day became a must throughout the county, and for a multiplicity of reasons. There was, for example, the usual tradition.

Many area residents believed that eating goose on Sept. 29 assured a successful year to the diner, guaranteeing good fortune will attend him and he will be at least $1,000 richer at the end of the 12 months.

“Over the years the silly superstition has fastened quite a hold on the people,” Meyers wrote in 1934. “Some would just as soon have a black cat cross their path, also walk under a ladder or light three-on-a-match as to miss getting at least a mouthful of cooked goose come Goose Day.”

There was another reason for eating goose on Goose Day. A lot of folks simply enjoyed the feast.

At one time there was a fairly widespread belief that Goose Day was a hoax popularized by the Dutch to sell off their surplus birds at this particular season of the year, but other theories on the start appear to have far more substance.

Meyers’ research turned up one Christian Zipp, who claimed it originated in Holland in a town named Leyden.

Leyden, as Zipp’s story goes, was besieged in the Middle Ages by the Spanish. The siege lasted a long time and the people of Leyden eventually were near starvation.

“The Spaniards camped outside the walls. Then somebody had a swell idea. Why not open the dikes and flood out the invaders? The military strategy worked,” reads Meyers’ account.

“The Dutch aren’t dumb like the Trojans with their wooden horse business at Troy. They suspected that perhaps the Spaniards had left men secreted behind like the Greeks had, so they sent a lad out to get the lay of the wet land.

“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 hungry Leydeners swarmed out of the gates to the place where the Spaniards had encamped and found what delayed the boy. Roast goose.

“The Dutch fell to and ate the victuals left behind by the fleeing Spaniards and this is the origin of Goose Day. Forever afterwards, the people of Leyden celebrated their bloodless victory over the Spaniards by eating goose.”

Other legends have Goose Day being brought to this area by the Amish, who settled in Holland. It was one of the customs they allegedly brought along with them when they came to settle in Pennsylvania.

But there’s another and probably more plausible story on how Goose Day began here. It dates from 1785. Again we turn to Meyers for the story.

“The Dutchman upon whom the habit first rubbed off from an English neighbor was named Andrew Pontius, who came from Berks County and settled in Buffalo Valley, Union County, in 1772,” Meyers wrote.

After the Revolutionary War, Pontius built himself a mansion house and began to look for a tenant farmer to help work the place. Finding no local candidates for the job, he decided to walk to Lancaster County in the fall of 1785 to find a hired hand from among his own Dutch kinsman.

Upon reaching Harrisburg, he met a young Englishman named Archibald Hunter, absent without leave from a British ship since the war. Pontius liked the chap and hired him on the spot. Hunter returned with Pontius and settled in a log cabin on the latter’s estate.

“In their written agreement, Hunter insisted that Sept. 29 of each year was to be the day of settlement,” Meyers continued. “This request puzzled the Dutch tycoon, who knew nothing of the old English custom too familiar to Hunter, that they struck a bargain that way, anyhow.”

Sept. 29 was the perennial “quarter day” in rural England, where the tenant farmer paid his rent for that portion of the harvest season.

Legend has it that on Michaelmas, Sept, 29, 1786, Hunter went to his landlord’s house for the first annual settlement as previously agreed. Under his left arm, he carried a large goose, one of the finest from the flock he had raised.

Pontius was surprised at the sight of the fowl until Hunter explained that in England, when paying the rent on Michaelmas, it was always the custom to include one goose for the Lord’s dinner. He added these words: “If you eat goose on Michaelmas, you’ll not want money for a year.”

Another custom related to the observance was to make a Michaelmas cake with a golden finger ring inside. The belief was that the one finding the ring would have an early marriage.

A visiting niece of Pontius named Anna Schneider was intrigued by the romantic idea suggested by the custom and asked that it be observed. Hunter was asked to stay for dinner.

And, so the legend goes, Anna found the ring –and a husband in the person of young Hunter. Of course, where the fact ends and fiction begins in this story is also shrouded in the past. Nevertheless, Goose Day continues to be an annual observance here.

But Goose Day remained practically unknown to an outside world and a mystery to a major proportion of newcomers to our area.

Only in recent years is it beginning to get the promotion that Ben Meyers dreamed of those many years ago.

But it was only six years ago, in 1973, that the Mifflin County Commission issued a proclamation formally establishing Goose Day as Sept. 29 — almost 40 years after Ben Meyers first broached the idea.

COMMENTS