Easter is the most important Christian holiday, and many families, regardless of their religion, celebrate the day by enjoying Easter traditions such as painting hard-boiled eggs, going on Easter egg hunts, decorating bonnets, and wearing cheerful-looking pastel-colored clothes. Easter customs vary from place to place: The people of Florence, Italy, traditionally explode a cart filled with fireworks, and in Finland, children dress as witches for the holiday. Many Easter celebrants aim to preserve or resurrect old traditions. But some traditions are better left dead.
Consider “gander pulling,” which entailed beheading a live goose, barehanded, while riding a horse—and, usually, while drunk—in front of a roaring crowd. Particularly popular around Easter in the American South, gander pulling was once a beloved pastime in the United States and many parts of Europe. The writer Carl Sandburg claims that even U.S. President Abraham Lincoln attended gander pulls in his youth.
It may be hard to believe that people chose to spend their time in this manner, but they did. The sport even earned an entry in Merriam-Webster.com, which defines it as “a pastime especially formerly in the South and Southwest in which a person on horseback rides rapidly past a goose hanging with its neck down and greased and tries to pull off its head.” The blood sport was most popular from the 17th to the 19th centuries and may date back to 12th-century Spain. Gander pulling may also be the source of the idiom “the goose hangs high,” meaning that “things are or will be pleasant, desirable, or merry.”
Writer Louis B. Wright describes gander pulling among other bygone forms of entertainment in his book Everyday Life in Colonial America: “[Pastimes included] running after a greased pig or ‘gander pulling,’ in which men rode by and tried to pull off the well-greased head of a goose suspended from a bar. When a rider lost his balance and tumbled to the ground, the crowd held their sides with laughter. Our ancestors were not overly refined and they did not worry about such things as pain to the goose or danger to the rider.”
In her book The New Nation: American Popular Culture Through History, Pennsylvania State University professor Anita Vickers notes that sometimes a hare was substituted for the goose, that the audience often doused failed contestants with buckets of water, and that gander pulling contests often lasted for hours—resulting in drenched competitors and a thoroughly tortured goose. Vickers also writes:
Gander pulling was one of the oldest of American sports, brought to New Amsterdam by the Dutch. As with other cruel and bloody sports, gander pulling spread to other parts of the colonies and remained popular in the United States and its territories until the mid-nineteenth century … The prize in a gander pulling contest was trivial. Sometimes the purse consisted of contributions by the audience, approximately 25 cents a head. . . . Other times the winner was treated to rounds of drinks at the local tavern. Frequently, the prize was the bird itself. The true draw was the betting that ensued, sometimes for money but more often than not for liquor.
The anthology We Are What We Celebrate: Understanding Holidays and Rituals, published by New York University Press, identifies gander pulling as a tradition on both Easter Monday and Shrove Tuesday. Another source similarly claims that, in Virginia, gander pulling tournaments often took place on the Monday following Easter. The Chicago Tribune states, in contrast, that in Illinois gander pulling was a yuletide tradition. And the Encyclopedia of North Carolina describes gander pulling as a popular “Easter time” tradition in that state, noting that most contestants fortified themselves for the undertaking with copious amounts of homemade corn liquor.
Women did not compete but found entertainment in the sport as well, according to the Encyclopedia of North Carolina: “The event offered a holiday outing for nearly everyone. Female spectators—who seem to have enjoyed gander pulling as much as men—cheered the crude ‘knights’ on their sturdy mounts and encouraged them to ‘seize the day’ (or gander). Each competitor hoped he would tear the prize from the body and nobly present a battered, bloody trophy to the lady of his choice.” Much has been written about the supposed death of romance, but at least men today do not present the objects of their affection with blood-soaked severed goose heads.
For a contemporary account of a gander pull, which goes into lengthy and grotesque detail, read the chapter “A Gander Pull in Arkansas,” from In the Louisiana Lowlands, a book published in 1900. The author mentions an occasion when it took “twenty-eight pulls on the picked and greased head of a gander before his obdurate head was induced to leave his body.” The author then muses, tongue-in-cheek, “Who could say that the gander might also not enjoy the tournament and imagine himself the highly honored object for which renowned knights were contending, and by skillfully dodging some and resigning his head to more favored ones he could choose the knight upon whose banner victory should perch.”
Our ancestors inhabited a more brutal world, where violent treatment of human beings was routine and mistreatment of animals hardly given a thought. Our forebears were also often bored out of their minds. It is easy to forget just how limited entertainment options were in the past. In an era before access to electricity, recorded music, movies, television, the internet, video games, or smartphones, tedious and mind-numbing manual labor might have kept people occupied, but it could not fulfill their longing for amusement and novelty. The pervasive and extreme boredom that often defined premodern life, combined with the ubiquity of frivolous cruelty at the time, may explain pastimes such as gander pulling.
Remembering the callous diversions of yore can help put the modern world into perspective. This Easter—however you spend the day—take a moment to appreciate the many ways that humanity has found to engage in merriment, rejoice during holidays, and have fun without yanking the greased head off a frantic goose or participating in other forms of needless violence. Happy Easter to all who celebrate; may your day be filled with joy and peace.