Custom demised: Goose at Michaelmas

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I dined upon goose yesterday which I hope will secure a good sale of the second edition of my book.”

In 1813 Jane Austen

Stubble Goose and Sour Blackberries – Devil Spits Day | The FishWife's Kitchen - Nottinghamshire Food Blogger, Former Cafe Owner, Food Writer, Speaker, Small Food-Business Mentor, Cook, Fishwife

Michaelmas Day once had an association with eating goose. It is thought that the tradition begun after Queen Elizabeth I dined on it as the news of the defeat of the Spanish Armada arrived. It is said that from this day onward, she promised always to eat goose on that day feeling it had brought her good luck. Thus it is thought the custom spread. Thus was said:

He who eats goose on Michaelmas day;
Shan’t money lack or debts pay

Even at the dawn of the 18th century, the belief was already so old that its origins had become obscure, as demonstrated by a query to the British Apollo on 22nd of October 1708 –

“Pray tell me whence the custom’d proverb did commence, that who eats goose on Michael’s day, shan’t money lack his debts to pay?”

However, it is more than likely that it had long been eaten on that day as geese were often freely available. Its origins may be very ancient even pre-Christian perhaps. Geese were so common and sold in large numbers explaining why many fairs developed to sell them such as Hulls and Nottingham’s Goose Fair and Tavistock’s Goosey Fair. In the former even rents were paid in geese as noted in 1575 by George Gascoine regarding paying rents in the form of geese went:

And when the tenants come to pay their quarter’s rent,
They bring some fowl at Midsummer, a dish of fish in Lent,
At Christmas a capon, at Michaelmas a goose,
And somewhat else at New-year’s tide, for fear their lease fly loose

An old saying would say:

“On Michaelmas night by right divine,

The goose is chosen to be the swine”.

Goose featured heavily in the harvest belief. For example in many places Michaelmas was known as ‘Goose Day’ and the last portion of grain was referred to cutting the gander’s neck in Shropshire. Of course geese had a practical use in the fields at harvest they could clean up and finish the stubble and as such would become fat on the food. Having goose for Michaelmas became a sign of wealth and prosperity:

“if the goose breast at Michaelmas be dour and dull We’ll have a sour winter, from the start to the full.”

It is clear that the goose as did Michaelmas became largely forgotten partly due to the rise of urbanisation and the industrial revolution. Michaelmas may be remembered in some areas such as school and university terms but in the goose has gone!

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